BETHLEHEM, Pa. – Lehigh looks to build on last year’s success to chase the Patriot League crown in 2012. After winning 10 of their last 12 matches in 2011, the Mountain Hawks earned the #3 seed in the Patriot League Tournament but came up short. With the return of two-time first team All-Patriot League performer Taylor Poole and 2011 Patriot League Libero of the Year Rachel Charles, Lehigh is primed for a deep postseason run.
Poole, who has tallied 623 kills, 70 aces and 190 blocks in her 85 career games, will be a focal point for this year’s team. She will be accompanied by Patriot League Libero of the Year Rachel Charles who has accumulated 799 digs and 88 aces over her two seasons as a member of Lehigh’s squad. The two will look to team up to help Lehigh make its second straight trip to the Patriot League Tournament.
“There’s no question that Taylor’s success in past years is a reason the team has been successful,” said Bertucci. “We’d like to see her continue to play at that level. She’s key.”
“Rachel continued to improve and made the U.S. Women’s National A2 Program this summer,” Bertucci said. “We also have another defensive specialist in Katie Troyan that’s just going to help and support Rachel’s position. We feel real confident that we’re strong in that position and we have some depth now.”
The 2012 team will need to replace two key players in Angelika Kopacz and Jessica Kudirka but head coach Bob Bertucci is confident that his players will step into the leadership roles vacated by the former co-captains.
“Jess is one of the key players that we’re going to have to replace,” said Bertucci. “First, because of the position, the setter is like the quarterback of the football team, and second because of the kind of job that she was doing for us last year. We’ve got four or five players battling it out for that setter position but it’s still too early to tell which one is going to win that fight.”
“We also lost Angelika on the outside,” Bertucci said. “Besides the experience she brought to us, it was the heart and desire that she had to play. It’s going to be tough to replace that.”
One of the key intangible aspects that coach Bertucci’s team focuses on is leadership. The development of team leaders is one feature that plays a pivotal role in the offseason.
“We’ve worked real hard with our leadership academy over the spring. I think we have a number of players that realize someone has to take that role and lead the team,” said Bertucci.
Coach Bertucci is still evaluating his players and has not made a decision who will replace Kopacz and Kudirka but he has narrowed his search to a few key players. Courtney McCutchan looks to be the likely replacement at outside hitter. She has racked up 407 career kills, 517 digs and 45 blocks in her two seasons as a Mountain Hawk. Also, Jade Van Streepen is looking to build on a solid freshman year that included 109 kills, 38 digs and 19 blocks. McCutchan and Van Streepen are being pushed by the underclassmen which have provided a nice balance of intensity and competition so far this preseason.
“It’s going to be between Courtney MucCutchan, who’s been a starter most of the time for the past two years and Jade Van Streepen, who is the heir apparent,” said Bertucci. “But we have a couple other players that were looking at including Lizzy Silverstein and Leah Turner that I think are also challenging for that spot.”
The front line will help the team match up against some of the bigger teams on the schedule. Amanda Clark and Taylor Poole will help anchor the middle along with freshman Ana Vrhel. Clark has recorded 175 blocks in her first two seasons and will seek to continue her success on the court.
“Our returning players in the middle in Amanda and Taylor I think are solid for us and the addition of Ana is going to help us in our size so we’ll have better match ups with the bigger teams,” Bertucci said. “It also gives us another viable player that we can use. She’s going to have some impact as early as her freshman season.”
As far as a breakout player is concerned, coach Bertucci has been impressed with Dana Raber. The junior saw action in all 29 games last season and has thrilled coaches with her play in the preseason. As a sophomore, she finished fifth on the team with 154 digs and will push for a more significant role on this year’s team.
“I think Dana has had one of the better summers. She probably came back in the best shape and it’s showing in the preseason right now,” said Bertucci.
With the season looming, the Mountain Hawks are making their final preparations before the season opener on Sunday. Coach Bertucci is excited about the energy his team has exhibited this preseason and is confident it will carry over into the regular season and hopefully the postseason.
“Our energy right now is really good. I think the girls are really working hard and the addition of our freshman class has challenged the upperclassmen. That’s been a nice dynamic to see. They’re all anxious right now to play,” said Bertucci.
With the leadership of the returning players and energy of the freshman, Lehigh is poised and balanced to compete in 2012. Postseason play is one goal of the team but so is improving on last year’s performance. With a competitive schedule, the Mountain Hawks face a daunting task of making it back to the Promised Land.
“Your goal has to be to win the Patriot League,” said Bertucci. “I think that’s an unspoken goal. I think that’s on everybody’s mind. We also want to improve on last year. Our schedule has drastically increased as far as difficulty and I think our conference has gotten better.”
Lehigh opens its 2012 campaign on Sunday, August 26 when it hosts Rider at 6 p.m. at the Leeman-Turner Arena. Live video broadcast of Sunday’s contest will be available on Lehighsports.com.