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

Returning: Taylor Cunningham, Courtney Littlefield

Newcomers: Elise Smith

HUNTSVILLE – Even with two of the most prolific hitters in Bearkat history flanking her for the last three seasons, Taylor Cunningham has always managed to stand out.

The Bearkat volleyball team has featured one of the most dynamic attacks in the Southland Conference in recent years, with Cunningham being one of the centerpieces of that charge. Now, as a senior, Cunningham will enter 2018 with the spotlight squarely on her – even if the spotlight is not what motivates her.

When it came to league-only matches In 2017, she was one of just two players in the Southland Conference to rank among the top 10 players in the league in both kills (3.10 kps) and attack percentage (.321). Those numbers helped her claim a spot on both the all-SLC first team, while her work in the classroom also propelled her onto the SLC’s all-academic first team.

“Everyone in the league knows who she is,” head coach Brenda Gray said about Cunningham. “For her the sky is the limit, and she has continued to develop progressively every year. It’s really beautiful to watch because she is so gifted and so athletic and has really developed a confidence about herself.”

A local product from Huntsville High School, she has seen her numbers increase each year, both offensively and defensively as she led the team with 1.19 blocks per set as a junior. She stands at 5-10, but possesses athleticism and quickness that few in the league can match.

In recent years she would often be the focus of an opponent’s defensive strategy, and that will likely be the case again in 2018, but she routinely has found a way to impact the game both offensively and defensively. She finished with at least four blocks in 19 of 30 matches last season, while reaching double digits in kills on another 14 occasions.

“I think any opponent will focus on Taylor the most,” Gray said. “I think that is the case for most dominant players. But she is always going to be a force and she is so quick and athletic that she just speeds the game up for everyone else whenever she is on the floor.”

The Kats will likely try to take advantage of that athleticism even more this year by allowing her the opportunity to play all the way around to open up the year, something the staff tested out in the spring with resounding success.

But Cunningham is not the only impact player the Bearkats will have in the middle in 2018. Courtney Littlefield returns for her sophomore season after playing a big role as a true freshman a year ago, stepping in as one of the Kats’ primary players after Amanda Gooch went down to injury early in the year.

“I think Courtney did great last year, especially being forced to come in unannounced the way that she did,” Gray said.

With a 6-3 frame, she averaged 0.84 blocks per set over 24 matches last year and could see that number go even higher now that she has a year under her belt. She enters the fall coming off an injury in the spring, but Gray feels as though she will be ready for the start of the season and could even have an impact for the Kats on the outside in certain situations.

The Kats also added Elise Smith as one of its signings, a freshman from Louisiana who brings size, athleticism and moxie that Gray likes in her players. A hybrid who could be used both in the middle or on the outside, Gray says that the 6-1 Smith has a knack for getting the ball to the floor even against difficult blocks.

Additionally, Gooch and Madison Wallace could also see time in the middle as 2018 progresses. Gooch spent her first two years in the middle and opened the 2017 there before missing the remainder of the season due to an injury and is projected to open up 2018 as one of the Kats’ primary outside hitters.

Wallace is also a jack of all trades who could see time at the net after the coaching staff experimented with her in that role in the spring. She also brings a 6-1 frame that plays at the net, and a firm understanding of the game in addition to a voice and floor presence that Gray feels will be key in any success the Kats have this season.

“Madison is very important to us,” Gray said. “A lot of people don’t recognize her, where I think without her we would really struggle. She is our most consistent passer and defensively she is very good. She isn’t flashy, but she is solid in all facets and someone who really holds our team together.”