Volleyball begins its season with weekend matches in Maryland

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Temple (22-8, 15-5 American Athletic Conference) begins its season this Friday against Northeastern University in the first match of the Maryland Invitational hosted by the University of Maryland.

The Huskies (20-11, 10-6 Colonial Athletic Association) return junior libero Gabrielle Eyl, whose 5.47 digs per set ranked seventh in Division I last season. The Huskies also return 2016 Colonial Athletic Association Setter of the Year Kristen Walding, who will have to search for new hitters to assist this year. Northeastern is replacing four seniors, including its top two hitters.

“Northeastern is a completely different team from last year,” coach Bakeer Ganesharatnam said. “They are replacing four seniors, so that’s a little bit of a surprise package.”

The Owls finished No. 47 in the Ratings Percentage Index but missed their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2002. This year a new postseason competition, the National Invitational Volleyball Championship, has emerged. It will be a 64-team tournament with a championship match on Dec. 12.

Thirty-two teams with the best records in their respective conferences from those that didn’t make the NCAA tournament will be selected. The best remaining 32 teams will receive at-large bids.

Temple, which hasn’t played postseason volleyball since 2002, returns senior outside hitters Irem Asci and Izzy Rapacz.

Asci and Rapacz made The American’s postseason first-team squad in 2016. The pair combined for 853 kills with Asci leading the team with 504. Both also earned unanimous selection to the 2017 preseason all-conference team.

Along with Asci and Rapacz, senior setter Kyra Coundourides returns to set up her teammates. Coundourides averaged 10.9 assists per set last season and set a single season-record with 1,253 assists in her first season after transferring from Virginia Tech.

Defensively, the Owls look to fill in at the net after losing former middle blocker Kirsten Overton. She led the team in blocks last season and played in 112 matches from 2013-16.

Experienced middle blockers, senior Janine Simmons and junior Iva Deak, are expected to help mitigate the loss of Overton. Simmons ranked second on the team with 86 blocks two seasons ago before seeing significantly less playing time in 2016. Deak was third on the team with 82 blocks last season in her first year after leaving Iowa Western Community College.

“We have 13 players who can play multiple positions if needed,” Ganesharatnam said.  “That really gives us more options to put on the court based on who we’re facing, depending on that specific match of the day and what we want to achieve.”

Temple’s depth and flexibility are their biggest advantages heading into this season, Ganesharatnam said.

After Northeastern, Temple will continue play against the University of Maryland Baltimore County (17-9, 8-4 America East Conference) on Saturday morning followed by a match with tournament host Maryland (12-20, 4-16 Big Ten Conference) later that evening.

Temple and the Retrievers played two common opponents last season — Virginia Tech and the University of new Hampshire. Both teams lost to Virginia Tech. And Temple beat the University of New Hampshire 3-1 on Sept. 10 while the Retrievers lost to the team on Sept. 30.

Along with 10 returning players, Temple adds freshmen Averi Salvador, Katerina Papazoglou and Baleigh Jean-Philippe to the roster. The coaching staff is making a concerted effort to get the young players into the rotation before the season starts.

“Our goal at this point is to include all the newcomers and try to make this assembly of talented young ladies a team,” Ganesharatnam said.

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