FLORENCE, SC - The Francis Marion University women's volleyball team will open its 2019 season on Friday (Sept. 6) as the Patriots participate in the two-day Queens University of Charlotte Volleyball Fall Classic.
On Friday, the Patriots will face Lenoir-Rhyne University at 3 p.m. and Belmont Abbey College at 5:15 p.m. (The BAC match was originally set for 10:30 a.m. but pushed back to a later start to allow for travel after the hurricane). On Saturday, FMU will take on North Greenville University at 10 a.m. and Barton College at 4:45 p.m. The tournament will be hosted in Queens' Levine Center for Wellness and Recreation. Daily admission is $10.
The squad's home opener will be the following weekend, Sept. 13-14, when the Patriots host the FMU Invitational Tournament.
Third-year head coach (and new mom) Lauren Baufield welcomes back seven letterwinners, including four starters, from last season's 13-15 squad. The won-loss total represented a four-win improvement over the previous season.
"Our goals this year are to be competitive, driven, and to never take a play off," Baufield said. "Defensively, we have been focused on blocking and digging, while we feel that our serve receive ability will be huge for us in 2019." Baufield gave birth to her first son during the summer, but has been with the squad since the start of preseason.
The returning starters are led by a pair of juniors: 5-10 outside hitter Courtney Abdur-Rahim and 6-2 outside hitter Kayla Arthur. Abdur-Rahim was named the PBC Player of the Week once during the 2018 season and led the Peach Belt Conference and ranked seventh nationally in service aces per match (0.54). She also recorded 2.28 kills and 2.43 digs per set. Arthur, a PBC All-Academic Team selection in 2018, averaged 1.85 kills per set.
Also returning is sophomore 6-0 outside hitter Alyssa Hansen and sophomore 6-2 middle blocker Iyanla Thigpen. Thigpen led the Peach Belt in hitting percentage at .331, while ranking fourth in blocks per set (1.01). Hansen averaged 2.16 kills per set as a freshman.
Senior Natalie Vaughn and sophomore Alexis Watts both return and will vie for the libero position and defensive specialist chores. Vaughn led the Patriots with 3.14 digs per set in 2018 and has totaled 934 career digs. Watts averaged 2.17 digs per set in 2018 and served at a .969 percentage.
Sophomore Finn Millians returns and will handle the setting duties. She played in 27 matches as a freshman with five starts and averaged 4.57 assists per set and 2.14 digs per set, while serving at a .944 clip.
When asked about her returnees, Baufield gushed about all seven. "Iyanla led the conference in hitting percentage as a freshman and we expect her to be a big play maker for us this season. She will get plenty of balls sent her way. Alyssa is aggressive and swings high and hard. We will also send many balls her way on the offensive side of the net.
"Courtney and Kayla have earned a ton of playing time over their first two years and put up good numbers. We will look for them to be our leaders on the court. Natalie and Alexis will work our back row in a strong fashion as they are very disciplined.
"Finn will run the show for us on the offensive side. She should be able to give hitters a better ball through repetition in practice and in matches."
Four newcomers are also listed on the 2019 roster, including two NCAA Division I transfers (5-10 outside hitter Adison Minor from East Tennessee State University and 6-2 middle blocker Lily Walton from North Carolina A&T State University) and two freshmen (5-10 middle blocker Madeline Winning from Pfafftown, N.C., and 5-11 outside hitter Brittany Sehnke from Florence and Wilson High School).
"Lily (a starter with the Aggies in 2018) is a force to be reckoned with at the net. She has size, gets in peoples' faces (in a positive way), and possess phenomenal footwork. We are looking to her for added strength on the defensive side. Adison is very athletic and has a whip of an arm. We will look to send balls her way on offense. Madeline and Brittany have done a great job in training learning the collegiate game, and have been the best of teammates to the rest of the roster.
"During the recruiting process, we always tell recruits that we are looking for versatile players. A lot of training in multiple positions allows us to run multiple line-ups utilizing the entire roster and making the most of our squad members."
FMU's schedule includes 16 home contests among the squad's 31 matches. The Patriots open their 46th year of intercollegiate volleyball with an all-time record of 842-698. FMU is 75-37 on its home court over the past seven seasons.
The Patriots open Peach Belt Conference play on Oct. 4 at home against Lander University.
The post-season PBC Tournament will be hosted this year by USC Aiken on Nov. 22-24.