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Looking back: Bryant volleyball enjoys best season yet in 2014

Looking back: Bryant volleyball enjoys best season yet in 2014

SMITHFIELD, R.I. – Behind senior leadership and a wealth of new, young talent, the Bryant University volleyball team enjoyed its best season yet at the Division I level in 2014, a year that included a pair of postseason award winners and the program's highest finish ever in the Northeast Conference.

Just a tiebreaker stood between the Bulldogs (12-22, 7-7) and their first-ever trip to the NEC Tournament, as Bryant tied Central Connecticut for fourth in the final regular-season standings.

Guiding the Bulldogs there was a strong combination of youth and experience, headlined by senior outside hitter Elena Lohr (Loveland, Ohio) and rookie sensation Natascha Scarff (Geneva, Switzerland).

A five-time Molten/NEC Rookie of the Week pick despite missing the first 10 matches of the season, Scarff dominated in every situation, finishing the year with 259 kills, 276 digs, 29 blocks and 20 aces en route to being named the 2014 Northeast Conference Rookie of the Year. It was the first major postseason award for any Bulldog volleyball player in Division I history and came along with an All-NEC Second Team selection as well. One of the top scoring threats in the league, Scarff compiled 12 double-doubles on her rookie season and hit the 20-kill mark twice.

Beside her, Lohr – a senior captain and floor general for the Black and Gold – led the team with 334 kills, also serving up a side-best 29 aces while surpassing the 300-dig mark to finish second on the team with 2.66 per set. Lohr added 24 blocks with a .954 reception percentage while playing all the way around throughout the season. She led the Black and Gold with 15 double-doubles on the year.

Setting the pair up all season long was redshirt-freshman Vika Nesterov (Kfar Saba, Israel). With more than 1,000 assists in her first season donning the Black and Gold, Nesterov made all the difference for the Bulldogs, quarterbacking the offense to one of its best performances ever. The frosh averaged 7.91 helpers per outing, also chipping in 324 digs (2.55/set), 120 kills, 21 aces and 67 blocks while tying Lohr's mark with 15 double-doubles.

Complementing Nesterov at setter throughout much of conference play was senior Jana Kmec (Stratford, Conn.). The setter came on strong midway through the season, providing options for head coach Theresa Garlacy. Kmec, a senior captain who picked up a trio of double-doubles herself, averaged 3.75 assists (221) in 22 appearances.

Arguably the most dramatic change to the Bulldog lineup, however, came on defense. Junior transfer Debora Magalhaes (Belo Horizonte, Brazil) transformed the Bryant back row, making an impression not just within the Northeast Conference, but on the national stage as well. The league's leader in digs (660) and digs per set (5.20), Magalhaes ranked 11th and 21st in the country in those respective statistics at season's end. The libero helped the Bulldogs limit opponents to just a .176 attack percentage (2nd in NEC) and led them to average 16.39 digs per set, good for 57th in the nation. Magalhaes, who finished the year with an impressive four 30-dig matches, would be rewarded for her efforts, garnering All-NEC Second Team accolades as voted on by the conference coaches.

Garlacy saw much of her younger ranks excel in their first seasons as Bulldogs, from top blocker Alexandra Lunsford (Minneola, Fla.) (94 blocks, 160 kills) to starter Kiley Robbins (Garland, Texas) (143 kills, 50 blocks) to the multidimensional Cassandra Sulmeisters (Centennial, Colo.) (51 kills, 127 digs, 12 aces, .917 reception percentage).

But behind the resurgence of youth on the Bulldog roster was the guidance of more key veterans, including the likes of sophomore Sara DePouw (Oconto, Wis.) and junior Taylor Onoyan (Crystal Lake, Ill.). DePouw repeated the efforts of her stellar rookie season in 2014, finishing second on the team with 265 kills while leading the squad in attack percentage (.251). She added 16 aces, 75 digs and 81 blocks while averaging just under three points per set.

Onoyan stepped up her game on offense and at the net midway through the season, earning starts in the last 12 matches (23 total starts in 26 appearances) en route to 109 kills and 68 blocks. The junior middle picked up a pair of double-digit kills outings  and earned her first-career double-double with 10 kills and 11 blocks at Sacred Heart Nov. 13.

As a team, the Bulldogs finished top three in the NEC in hitting percentage (.168, third), opponent hitting percentage (.176, second), digs (2,082, first) and digs per set (16.39, second). Bryant also finished in the top five in assists (11.16, fourth), kills (11.98, fifth) and blocks (1.89, fifth).

And though the Bulldogs will lose a trio of solid seniors to graduation, the future looks bright for the Black and Gold. As Bryant prepares for spring tournaments, the team's younger ranks return with another season of experience under their belts, ready to fight for the Bulldogs' ultimate goal – its first-ever Division I postseason berth.