Volleyball Returns to Columbus State Friday Night

COLUMBUS, Ga. — Volleyball returns to Columbus State University Friday night for the first time in more than 30 years.

Head coach Casey Cornett is excited about her team’s season opener at 7 p.m. Friday against Johnson C. Smith University in the first round of the CSU-Hughston Clinic Invitational at the Lumpkin Center. CSU will play twice Saturday, beginning with Limestone College at 12:30 p.m. and again at 7 p.m. against Fort Valley State University.

Forgive Cornett’s enthusiasm, but she can’t help but think her team is ready to go, and she aims to shock Peach Belt Conference opponents. As for the fans, she says the team will play a brand of power volleyball that will bring them back for more all season long.

“I may be biased, but there is nothing more exciting than when a girl goes up and cranks on the ball, and just kills on the other side,” Cornett said. “Or when a girl goes up and she hits the ball so hard that the defense can’t get out of the way and it hits a girl on the shoulder or even on the head.”

Cornett said that’s the kind of play she hopes will produce victories and draw crowds to the Lumpkin Center this fall as CSU resurrects women’s volleyball after a 31-year absence.

From 1966-1982, Columbus College’s volleyball team, coached solely by Mary V. Blackmon, won more than 200 games, including an 11-0 mark in 1977 — the first-ever perfect record in the history of the Georgia Association of Intercollegiate Athletics for Women.

What’s CSU going to do for its long-awaited encore? If Cornett, a former assistant at UNC-Charlotte, has her way, she’ll launch a program that immediately will have people talking about Columbus State.

“I don’t want confidence to be confused with cocky,” Cornett said. “But I want to be among the top three in the conference. I want to shock people who did not expect us to be this good. I want it to be where they say, ‘Where did Columbus State come from? They’re not supposed to be this good.’”

Cornett, hired in mid-2012, was unfazed by the prospect of rebuilding a program after three years as an assistant coach. Relying on the advice of mentors with similar experiences, she’s signed 16 players, constructing a roster designed for long-range success, with three juniors, four sophomores and nine freshmen.

"While I am not worried about each player's individual ability, I am excited to see how they will come together and gel as a team of 16 girls who have never played together before."

Setters

At setter, Cornett has two contenders for the starting position, both with different strengths and styles. Kierston Smith, who stands 6-1 and is a transfer from State College of Florida, is a great ball handler who also adds offensive power to the court. She racked up 52 service aces, 123 kills, 908 assists and 177 digs in her two years at the NJCAA DI level. Additionally, Ivana Kazic comes from Belgrade, Serbia as a freshman and is extremely systematic and smart at placing the ball in tight situations. Playing time will come down to what works best for the team as Cornett would like to run a 6-2 rotation.

Defensive Specialists

Cornett spared no expense on the defensive side of her squad with five defensive specialists, each of whom has the potential to step in as a leader.

Lauren Corbin, a freshman from Panama City, Fla., comes from two extremely competitive programs, Mosley High School, where she helped lead her team to the Florida 6A Sweet 16 and Club Fusion, which was two-time USA Gulf Coast Regional Champions and made the 2011 Junior National Championships. Also bringing stamina to the backcourt is freshman Emily Veihman of Augusta, a team leader in sprints and weights. She played for the CSRA Heat and is an intense, loud player who will be an asset to the team on and off the court.

Three Cougars are particularly talented and stand as frontrunners for the libero, or defensive specialist, position. Freshman Taylor Ray, homegrown talent from Columbus High School, is one of the more veteran passers on the CSU team. Parkland College transfer, junior Megan Scharnett comes from a junior college program that posted an 86-16 record during her two-year stint. Caytlin Merritt, a freshman who helped Columbus' own Calvary Christian School Knights to a Georgia State Championship, is the third contender for libero.

Hitters

Offensively, Cornett has organized an impressive mixture of powerful and strategic attackers. In early practice and competition, most will see time on both the outside and the right side.

Paris Junior College transfer Katie Poole, a 5-8 junior, may be a little undersized but is a crafty six-rotation player. Her attacks are hard to read, and she is a defensive asset with the ability to dig and receive serves like no other. She helped lead her 2012 squad to a No. 30 ranking, and individually she was 28th nationally for kills with 351 and 41st in digs with 435. Expect a lot of double-doubles this season from Poole.

Sophomore McKenzie Bragg, 5-11, another Calvary Christian School alum who played one season at Wesleyan College, is a smart hitter who is great at spotting openings and placing her shots accordingly. Freshman Erika Gelzinyte is a 6-0 hitter from Siaulial, Lithuania, who will be the Cougars' go-to on the outside. A powerhouse attacker with unbelievable strength, she comes to CSU after turning down several Division I volleyball offers.

Cheyenne Swenson, a 5-11 sophomore, hails from Paris Junior College. She recorded an impressive 260 kills and 152 digs as a freshman at PJC and has the best vertical leap of the Cougars. She is a versatile player who can play on the outside or the right, and she carries the potential to become a powerful attacker.

Rounding out the offensive attack are 6-1 Mary McCarty and 6-3 Andrea Skipor, both freshmen. McCarty, also a Calvary Christian School product, earned her spot on the roster through an impressive tryout, and with her shot making ability she could snag a starting position. Skipor, who comes to CSU from West Chicago Community High School in Illinois, is a powerful right-side hitter who also puts up an amazing block.

Middle Blockers

Three freshmen will make up the middle blockers of this year's CSU team. Kaitlin Tatum, 6-2, hails from Flowery Branch, while 6-0 Megan Frame and 5-11 Kylie Beaubien join the Cougars from Sylvania, Ohio and Birmingham, Alabama, respectively.

Tatum's passion for the sport has allowed her to overcome so much. Having had four ankle surgeries to remove a benign tumor due to Trevor's disease, her successful ankle replacement allowed her to rally her 2012 high school team to the Georgia Super Six. She will be a big inspiration to everyone in the CSU volleyball community.

Frame, who was a member of the prestigious Premier Volleyball Club in Maumee, Ohio, is one of the more technically sound players on the team. She is a smart player who will likely be the starting middle blocker for CSU. Beaubien is a hard worker who comes to the Cougars having been the No. 3 blocker in the Birmingham Metro in 2012.

The Schedule

CSU's conference schedule begins one week after the opening tournament. The Cougars play on the road against Georgia Regents University on Friday, Sept. 13 and Georgia College on Saturday, Sept. 14. Flagler College and Armstrong Atlantic State University will likely be CSU's strongest Peach Belt opponents.

The toughest out-of-conference matches will be when the Cougars travel to the Saint Leo Classic in Florida on Sept. 20-21. CSU will face off with South Dakota-Mines, Cedarville and Molloy.

CSU-Hughston Clinic Invitational Schedule:

Friday, Sept. 9th

4:30 p.m.   Limestone vs. Fort Valley State
7 p.m.   Columbus State vs. Johnson C. Smith

Saturday, Sept. 10th

10 a.m. Johnson C. Smith vs. Fort Valley State
12:30 p.m. Columbus State vs. Limestone
4:30 p.m.   Limestone vs. Johnson C. Smith
7 p.m.   Columbus State vs. Fort Valley State

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