The 2018 Sam Houston State Bearkat volleyball season is nearly upon us, with Coach Brenda Gray’s group set to open up the year on August 24 vs Drake on the opening day of the Sam Houston State Tournament.

This is the first of a four-part preview, position by position of this year’s squad, leading up to the 2018 season opener.  

Returning: Jaclyn Ward, Madilyn Miles
Newcomers: None

HUNTSVILLE – Coach Brenda Gray knows the value of experience on the court, and having that at the setter position could pay big dividends for the Bearkats in 2018.

Jaclyn Ward saw action as both a freshman and a sophomore, but finally took over full-time setting duties as a junior in 2017 and took full advantage of having three of the most dynamic offensive threats in the Southland Conference last year.

She finished second in the league in assists and earned honorable mention all-SLC honors in her first year running the show, and averaged 10.68 assists per set in league-only matches. With her direction, the Bearkats were the only team in the league to place three players – Jordyn Vaughn, Brooke White and Taylor Cunningham – in the top 10 in the league in kills per set in conference-only matches. 

“Jackie is extremely confident in what she does,” Gray said. “She got significantly better as last year went on, and I think that had a lot to do with comfort, timing with her hitters and knowing the defenses.”

“We sign our setters two years apart for a reason. There is no substitute for experience.” 

Not only an adept distributor of the offense, Ward also featured skills on the defensive side in 2017 as well. She was second on the team with 0.62 blocks per set and added 2.35 digs per set, finishing with 11 double-doubles on the year and even earning the SLC Offensive Player of the Week honor after a big week that led to wins over UIW and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.

This year Ward will have to operate without the comfort of both Vaughn and White on the outside, but Gray feels that the 2018 season could see Ward and the offense surge even higher due to a broader array of weapons that includes Cunningham, Amanda Gooch and freshman Breanne Chausse. She also feels that the 2018 squad shoudl exhibit increased ball control that will likely put the senior signal caller routinely in optimum positions to get the most out of her hitters.

“We really feel as though we got better in the spring because we shifted our defense a little bit and I think the ball control is better, and therefore Jackie got better,” Gray said. “The ball was coming at her at a speed that allowed her to run great transition, and I think that has made her better.”

Behind Ward is sophomore Madilyn Miles, a skilled setter who got into 11 matches as a true freshman. She enters 2018 with a year in the program under her belt and with Gray happy with the progression she has made entering her second campaign.

“I think her maturity, being around the program and developing in drill work and really knowing the tempo of the sets per player and what she needs to run in particular serve-receive patters has helped her,” Gray said.

Miles only got into 13 sets in 2017, but showed flashes of what is to come, including seven assists against Arkansas and another nine at UIW. She immediately adds to the Bearkats’ ball control whenever she is on the floor and could be used as another back-row option in certain scenarios.

“I think now that she has her feet wet and has ingested the way we run our offense, she is much better, “Gray said. “I think Madilyn ended the spring great and we really like where she is at right now.”