SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Santa Clara volleyball begins the 2017 campaign with an East Coast swing this Friday and Saturday. The Broncos head to the nation's capital to face quality competition in American Friday at 4 p.m. PDT, Georgetown Saturday at 9 a.m. and Howard Saturday at 4 p.m. as part of the D.C. Volleyball Challenge. The Eagles and Bison each made the NCAA Tournament last year.
Santa Clara got off to its best start in program history at 9-0 in 2016. Following its ninth win, the team was ranked 17th in the AVCA Division I Coaches Poll — its highest mark since 2006. The Broncos lost 2015 all-conference and all-region setter Kirsten Mead to injury after the sixth match of the year, and Mead missed 14 contests before returning to the lineup. They finished the season at 16-14 overall and 7-11 in conference play.
The Broncos are 1-0 against American (1999) and Georgetown (2006). They will face Howard for the first time in program history on Saturday.
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Santa Clara returns four players that logged more than 100 sets last season: Jensen Cunningham, Hailey Lindberg, Taylor Odom and Taylor Laugero. Despite missing time due to injury, Mead still earned an All-WCC Honorable Mention accolade.
Cunningham started all 30 matches a season ago and led the Broncos with 10 block solos while ranking second on the team in hitting percentage (.289) and total blocks (94, t-Lindberg). The Broncos return their most efficient front-liner in Lindberg (.301 hitting percentage), top blocker in Odom (112 total blocks, 1.09 blocks/set) and top defender in Laugero (471 digs, 4.28 digs/set).
The Broncos welcome five newcomers to the team, including 2016-17 Gatorade Oregon Volleyball Player of the Year Kathryn Decker. Alongside Decker are freshmen Brittany Gillingham, Chloe Loreen and Gretchen Reinert as well as sophomore Tessie Powers, who transferred from Gonzaga.
American, selected to defend its 2016 Patriot League title, went 27-8 last year and 12-1 at home. The Eagles defeated Colgate in the conference championship match before being swept by Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. Junior Aleksandra Kazala was the league's player of the year in 2016.
Georgetown went 7-24 overall and 2-4 in neutral court matches last season. Junior Symone Speech earned All-BIG EAST Second Team honors last year and is a preseason all-conference pick this year.
Howard is coming off a 26-6 season that included a perfect 9-0 mark at home. The Bison won 15 straight contests, including a MEAC Tournament championship, before falling 3-0 to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament's first round. The Bison also return a conference player of the year in Khaila Donaldson, and are picked to win the MEAC Northern Division.