By Daniel Whitehead
BUENA VISTA, Va.—With only four returners coming back to the 2013 Southern Virginia University women's volleyball team, it would be easy to assume that the season would be a struggle to compete not only against new league members, but also any opponent the Knights were set to face.
In addition to competing for the first time in the Capital Athletic Conference, the team was welcoming a new coaching staff in head coach Paige Hiatt and assistant Brittney Lee. Fortunately for the incoming staff, the team entered fall training camp prepared to work and with an attitude of putting doubts to rest.
The Knights would go on to achieve an impressive 15-9 record for the year and remarkable 6-3 mark in CAC play despite the odds.
"I thought the girls really showed some nerve to step into a difficult conference and I'm proud of how they handled themselves with only four returners," Hiatt said. "We faced some great teams but we stayed composed. With Coach Lee and I both being new and our team not having faced any of these opponents before, we had no idea what to expect.
"Now that we have an idea, it sets the bar higher. Even after the first few conference games, I thought the team showed up to practices more motivated and more focused to succeed."
With the experience of having faced the league opponents and played under Coach Hiatt's system, the Knights have heightened expectations moving forward.
"Now that we're in the offseason, we know what we need to do to prepare and we have a goal of winning a conference championship next season," Hiatt said. "I think with this mindset we'll be able to start stronger next season and be more prepared for what's to come. Hopefully, there won't be a plateau but we'll continually progress leading up to the season."
Under the leadership of seniors Tori Tuttle and Shyanne Ison and sophomore returners Katelynn Tlustek and Shannon Romito, the incoming freshmen knew what they had to do to prepare themselves during fall camp and throughout the year.
By the end of the season, Tuttle and Ison became all-time program leaders in several categories, with Ison achieving school records for most digs with 854, most service attempts (807), and most sets and matches played with 388 and 111, respectively. She also excelled in the classroom by being named to the USCAA All-Academic team for the third year in a row.
Tuttle became the all-time block assists leader with 253, solo blocks (96), points (1,063.5) and total blocks (349). The Anahola, Hawaii, native was named to the USCAA All-America first team in 2011, the USCAA All-America second team in 2012 and honorable mention in 2013. She was also named to the CAC volleyball weekly honor roll five times during the 2013 season.
"Tori and Shyanne were leaders from the beginning because they had been in the program the longest," Hiatt said. "Since they had already been here for three years, they were excited to be in a conference for the first time. This helped them set the tone at every practice and voice their goals not only for the team but for the school.
"With the challenge of welcoming nine girls into the program this year, they set the bar pretty high in both athletics and academics. They'll be greatly missed, but I know the examples they set will help the girls coming back next season."
Eaton, from Syracuse, Utah, excelled as a middle blocker where she played in all 87 sets and ranked first on the team in solo blocks with 22 to go along with 41 block assists. She ranked second on the team in most kills with 209 for the year and was named to the CAC volleyball weekly honor roll once during the year.
Bennett, from Kaysville, Utah, competed as an outside hitter and libero for the Knights. She played in all 87 sets, earned 15 kills, and had the second-most assists and service aces on the team with 43 and 55, respectively. Bennett led the Knights in digs with 437 on the year and earned a spot on the CAC volleyball weekly honor roll once during the season.
Setter Katelynn Tlustek had a great season and was recognized as the CAC Athlete of the Week on Oct. 8 and was also a two-time USCAA Setter of the Week during the year.