HPU looks to compete atop Big South

Aug. 29, 2013 @ 11:38 PM

The last several years, the High Point University volleyball team has been one of the top teams in the Big South Conference. This year, its sights are firmly set on not just being one of the top teams, but being the top team.

Looking to continue building, the Panthers (20-11 overall, 9-5 in the Big South last year; tying for third) return a host of talented players now with loads of experience. That gives them a real shot at challenging the likes of conference power Liberty, which has won the last two tournament titles. 

They open their season this weekend in the Gamecock Invitational in Columbia, S.C. with matches against Florida International and South Carolina State on Friday and South Carolina on Saturday. They open at home Sept. 10 against Elon.

“When you’re moving chess pieces around the board, you don’t strike at the king right away,” said coach Jason Oliver, entering his fifth season, earlier this week in the Steele Center. “You manipulate and move and do different things. I’m really looking forward to making moves toward that king this year.”

Among those returning are preseason all-conference selections Kristin Heldt (junior outside hitter) and Annemarie Chin (sophomore defensive specialist/libero), as well as standout junior outside hitter Chelsea Davis and senior setter Maddie Simpson, to give the Panthers a talented, well-balanced lineup years in the making.

“As coaches, it’s what you work so hard to get to, and you want to get there faster than your fifth year,” Oliver said. “But it’s the fifth year and we’re there. And a lot of it just comes down to having faith in the character of the kids and their ability to go out there and execute a system.

“Sophomores when they become juniors make much better decisions than when they’re freshmen. And our two outside hitters who will probably start are juniors and have started the last two years. So, it’s a lot easier when the experience starts matching up with the athletic ability.”

After faltering in the first round of the Big South tournament last year, the Panthers, who won the tournament in 2010, have planned to push themselves with a difficult nonconference schedule to steel themselves for the challenges of the Big South, which Oliver described as the best overall in his five years.

The goal is to be prepared and playing their best come October and into early November, playing with rhythm, creativity and passion, and executing their fast-paced playing style with confidence as they enter the all-important conference tournament Nov. 21-24 in Clinton, S.C. — likely the only route for making the NCAA tournament.

“If you commit yourself to how (the learning process) works, to your teammates, yourself too, by the end of the year it all takes care of itself,” Oliver said. “There are going to be many hurdles and tests. And we want our team to be challenged so that we see every possible pressure, success and outcome before those three days.

“... The best part of this team is they understand it’s my job to push, prod, make them feel uncomfortable and then tell them they’re great on the other side. I think they respond to that, and I think this group is ready to make that jump to being great. It’s not: ‘I don’t understand.’ It’s: ‘I understand, I’m onboard, and let’s get it done.’”