Carli Kolbe came into her senior year as an outside hitter for the Sam Houston volleyball team knowing that the 2011 season could be a special one for the Bearkats.

An All-Southland Conference selection the past two seasons and a member of this year's preseason all-league squad, Kolbe knows she must play a leadership this fall. The College Station product believes the squad that consists of four seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and four freshmen can be a force in this year's Southland Conference race.

"We've always had great expectations going into every season," Kolbe said. "But this could be a special season. We do have some young girls, but we're more experienced. There's more people keeping everyone in line and keeping everyone on the same page. Everyone is very focused on one goal."

Kolbe began her senior season ranked No. 18 in Sam Houston career kills (1,169). She finished third in the Southland in 2010 in kills (424) and kills per set (3.69), becoming the first Bearkat to post more than 400 kills in back-to-back seasons since 2005.

With Kolbe leading the way offensively, Sam Houston opened with five consecutive victories, the best start for the program since 1982.

"Starting out 5-0 and winning our home tournament was so much fun," Kolbe said. "We took a trip together to Kym Loving's lake house before the season started and really got to know each other. The tournament was the cherry on top of everything."

But, in the Bearkats' second tournament of the year, Kolbe rolled her ankle late in a victory over North Texas and had to miss the next six matches. With their top scorer on the sidelines, Sam Houston went 1-5.

Kolbe returned for Sam Houston's first conference contest at Stephen F. Austin and led the Bearkats to a five-set victory over rival Stephen F. Austin. Now the senior and her teammates are ready to challenge for league leadership.

"Before two-a-days, the seniors (Loving, Courtney Laskowski, Kim Black and Kolbe) had a meeting," Kolbe said. "We're the only ones who know this is our last chance. We talking about having each other's back no matter what. It's really shown we're a united front. There's a lot of respect among all of us. We have fun, but we respect each other."

Head coach Brenda Gray believes this year's team can be something special.

"Since the first practice, this has been such a great group of players to work with," Gray said. "Carli is one of the most complete players we've had here at Sam Houston. She's definitely a top candidate for player of the year in the league. She is a fierce competitor who keeps her game at a high level and raises the level of her teammates."

With the non-conference portion of the 2011 schedule complete, the volleyball team heads into the thick of Southland Conference action. The Bearkats three of their next four matches at home in Bernard G. Johnson Coliseum. Up first Thursday is defending Southland regular season Central Arkansas.

Kolbe looks forward to the challenge but also appreciates what she has learned in her career as a Bearkat.

"I've learned so much, not just in volleyball but about life," Kolbe said. "I've grown as a leader and as a teammate. I've learned a lot from the coaches and the girls and I've met so many great people."

A Southland Conference Commissioner's Academic Honor Roll student, Kolbe is a kinesiology major. She already is looking ahead to life after college volleyball.

"I have to do my methods in the spring and then I have my student teaching," Kolbe said. "I don't know if I want to coach. That's why I'm getting my kinesiology teacher's certification because I know that's not out of the question. But I'm also interested in teach special ed."

Sam Houston will be seeking to earn one of the six berths in the 2011 Southland Conference post-season tournament which will be hosted by the University of Central Arkansas this November. The tournament winner earns the league's automatic NCAA playoff berth.

It's obvious from the Bearkats performance so far this season, that is the team's long term goal in 2011.