A talented University of Jamestown women's volleyball team will find out exactly where it stands right out of the gate this weekend west of the Rocky Mountains.
It's all part of the big picture for the 20th-ranked Jimmies, who'll play No. 18 Vanguard (Calif.) and No. 6 Southern Oregon at the Southern Oregon Raider Invitational in Ashland, Oregon, on Saturday. UJ opens the 2019 season Friday at the invite, facing Lewis-Clark State College (Idaho) and Oregon Institute of Technology.
"We know we have a veteran team back and one of our goals is to play some tough competition from outside our region at the beginning of the season," said UJ women's volleyball coach Jon Hegerle, who's entering his 11th season at the helm. "For us -- for all intents and purposes -- we should be better than we were last year, just because we're going to be more experienced and we pretty much have the vast majority of our team back."
The Jimmies rifled off 24 match victories and qualified to compete at the NAIA national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, for a third consecutive season in 2018. Isabel Wedell (459 career kills) is returning for a third and final go-around at starting right-side hitter, where the senior will be a leading weapon in Jamestown's arsenal.
Senior middle Britta Knudson emerged as a consistent presence in front of the net last fall for the Jimmies, finishing with 214 kills and 142 total blocks, while spot starters Ellie Michaletz (165 kills) and Jordan Thomas (73) are back to help man the outside. UJ also returns setters Miranda Lowman (575 assists) and Jackie Meiklejohn (488), as well as senior defensive specialist Sydney Ellingson (211 digs) and sophomore DS/outside hitter Anna Holen (172 digs, 90 kills).
The Jimmies will also need to rely on junior middles Jayla Ritter and Corina Rudd at times, as well as sophomore outsides Carmen DeVries and Taylor Sabinash. Former Jamestown Blue Jays Megan Gaffaney and Hannah Schiele will also be well in the mix at setter and defensive specialist, respectively.
"All those players have worked really hard this spring, and especially this summer, with our strength and conditioning program with our new strength and conditioning coaches," Hegerle said. "So physically we're better than we've been and we're feeling really good about the direction we're heading."
The biggest loss from 2018 was losing senior Julina Niemeier, the Great Plains Athletic Conference Libero of the Year. Niemeier tallied 1,508 career digs for UJ, but Hegerle said Ellingson, Holen and Schiele are up to the task.
"We're excited about our back row. We feel good about that," Hegerle said. "We're certainly going to be putting a lot of emphasis on passing and defense because losing a player like Julina really does leave a void there, but we think we can work hard and have that be a strength again."
UJ was picked fifth in the GPAC preseason coaches' poll -- exactly where it finished year 1 in the GPAC last season at 10-6 -- behind No. 7 Northwestern, No. 8 Midland, No. 11 Dordt and No. 14 Hastings.
"From our perspective, we want to be competing for a conference championship," Hegerle said. "We feel if we can compete for a conference championship, we'll have the ability to compete for a national championship."
The Jimmies have been knocking on that door as of late, finishing just shy of the national tournament's round of 16 by a single-set tiebreaker in two of the past three seasons. UJ was dealt a crushing blow in Sioux City last Nov. 29, falling to Viterbo (Wisc.) 25-21 in a single-set race to 25 after finishing pool play tied 2-1 with Viterbo and Saturday's opponent: Southern Oregon.
The Jimmies dominated its pool play match vs. Viterbo 25-18, 25-12, 25-13 on Nov. 28. Southern Oregon advanced to the final 16 teams via a higher set winning percentage in pool play, but fell to eventual national champion Park University (Mo.) in the quarterfinals.
"We put it behind us, and the NAIA may have put it behind them too," Hegerle said. "There's been a lot of talk about how that just is not an appropriate tiebreaker. But we knew it going in and we knew what we had to do, so we're ready to move on."
It all begins Friday on the West Coast.
"We're excited about going to Southern Oregon," Hegerle said. "They've been really good for a while and there's some really good teams out there."