Georgia State’s volleyball team entered last season with six decorated seniors in 2015. In the school’s all-time rankings: the third all-time leader in assists Natalia Nieto, the fourth all-time leader in kills Deidra Bohannon, seventh all-time leader in digs Gabby Serafin and 2013 All-Conference Carolinas Second Team transfer Brianna Jones highlighted the senior class.
On paper, many could argue the team would be in the mix for a Sun Belt championship, as the Panthers finished sixth in a preseason poll among the 11 teams in the conference. On the court, however, the Panthers finished ninth in the conference with a 3-13 Sun Belt record and 7-19 overall record in large part due to a vital component, according to head coach Sally Polhamus.
The injury bug of 2015
“We had a very senior-laden team last year and with that came a little bumps and bruises after four years of starting,” Coach Polhamus said.
The “bumps and bruises” Polhamus referred to are the multiple injuries the entire team faced in 2015. Senior Eliza Zachary, who started every game at Georgia State from her freshman through junior seasons, tore her ACL in the seventh match of the year against Kennesaw State. Jones missed all but seven matches late in the season. Multiple players were spotted wearing walking boots on the team’s off days, including Bohannon.
The health issues the Panthers faced affected the team’s depth, which proved to be very vital at the end of sets and games. Last season, Georgia State gave away a handful of leads and ultimately lost many matches playing without their stars like Zachary.
After her injury, Zachary was given a medical redshirt, which made her eligible to return this season with the Panthers. On the newly painted GSU Sports Arena floor, Zachary and fellow senior Kristina Stinson are the first Panthers in the gym to help set up nets before a practice. Zachary appeared to be all smiles in regards to getting another shot at a senior season.
“I feel great,” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of rehab over the spring, preparing for this season, and I’m really excited to just get back on the court with my team.”
In the team’s first tournament of the season, the excitement translated to the court for Zachary. The fifth-year senior racked up 22 total kills against James Madison University, Holy Cross and North Carolina Central in the JMU Invitational. As a unit, the Panthers played more players than their opponents in two of the three matches. In both matches, Georgia State went deeper on their bench than the other team, the Panthers walked away with victories.
After last season’s opening tournament in North Carolina, Zachary was named to the All-Tournament team. She ended the weekend with 40 kills, 13 blocks and even tied her career high in kills with 22 against Western Carolina.
Fans that watched last season’s team could’ve used the eye test to know that the Panthers had enough talent to double the actual win total, however health was an issue.
Polhamus’s solution to preserving this team’s health was simple.
“Something we wanted to focus on recruiting wise, was to have more depth at each position,” she said.
Same place, fresh face
In the post-Class of 2016 era, the five seniors and one transfer, Jordan Screen to Columbus State, have been replaced by eight new faces. The new additions for the Panthers this season are: Katie Creger, Morgan Hash, Madelyn Ott, Sydney Stroud, Hannah Weiland, Jocelyn Mahayag, Katelyn Rawls and Celeste Friesen.
The new faces come from diverse and decorated athletic backgrounds. Their different personalities look to gel as fast as possible for the fall season. One mutual trait amongst all of the recruits is that all of these players come from winning programs.
Winning programs like the one Rawls’ coming from. She’s a fifth year senior and a product of Georgia State beach volleyball.
“She’s made a huge impact on our team,” Coach Polhamus said of Rawls. “Just with her knowledge of the game, her shots, her competitiveness and her great leadership.”
The Panthers’ beach volleyball team adopted the tradition of winning since its inception. The team took a trip to the 2015 AVCA National Championships in its third year of existence.
Rawls recorded a win against Stetson with Nina Interwies at the championship tournament.
Although Rawls took spring 2016 off from the sand courts, the Panthers went to the inaugural NCAA National Beach Volleyball Championships and the team finished the season with a top 10 national ranking.
The winning backgrounds of the new members on this season’s court volleyball team goes from a veteran like Rawls all the way down to one of its youngest newcomers.
The most decorated newcomer is perhaps freshman Celeste Friesen. At George Walton Comprehensive High School, Friesen led the Raiders to an undefeated senior campaign and her third state title. Friesen was named a Gatorade 2015 State Player of the Year finalist, in addition to earning MaxPreps 2015 High School All-American honors among other acknowledgements. While she had other offers on the table that she prefered not to specify, her relationship with Stinson and the welcoming attitude of Polhamus were two deciding factors in staying close to home.
“I was 15 and she was 18, so I got to play one year with her,” Friesen said when describing her relationship with Stinson. “She was the only one that would really talk to me because I was younger and that made an impact on my life.”
Friesen looks to bring her knowledge and awareness of the game, as well as her winning attitude to the Panthers this year.
If the tired legs of seniors contributed to last season’s struggles late in matches and with general health, Georgia State certainly shouldn’t face that issue this year. Only three of the 15 players on the Panthers roster this season are upperclassmen, which makes sophomores like Shae Chapman team veterans.
“Last year it was great. My first year being here and going through the season. Now, having these other freshmen and seeing how it was, we can now help them out and help them get into the vibe. I’m really excited about what we can do this year,” Chapman said.
Chapman, along with Crystal Lee, Kaitlyn Dachs, Anna Rantala and Sarah Renner, saw extensive playing time last season as freshmen, being catapulted into key roles early in their college careers.
Chapman later said that on-court communication and going to class are her main tips to the freshmen of the team. In Zachary’s case, as the program’s longest active athlete, the younger players bring about an atmosphere of optimism.
“They just bring this amazing high energy,” Zachary said of the team’s 11, 12 if you count redshirt sophomore Katie Creger, underclassmen. “They’re all not jaded from years and years of college volleyball, they’re really excited and really hopeful for everything, which brings a breath of fresh air.”
Two standouts from the sophomore bunch to look out for are Sarah Renner and Anna Rantala. Renner was named Sun Belt Freshman of the Week on Nov. 16 and Rantala was a key member of last season’s defense, recording 50 digs and 26 total blocks.
The team faces a large task in the process of climbing from the bottom of the conference standings to the top. Only UL Monroe collected fewer votes in the preseason poll than the Panthers, but hopes remain high for the positive, young veterans.
“We want rings. That’s it. That’s the goal. We want to win. We want to work together in becoming that winning team. We want to win in love and togetherness and that’s all it’s about. That championship is ours and we’re ready to take it,” Chapman said.