Sept. 20, 2012
WEST POINT, N.Y. - When the Patriot League volleyball season kicks off this weekend, Army does not need to dig deep for motivation. The Black Knights visit American on Friday night in a rematch of last season's Patriot League championship bout and battle rival Navy in the annual "Star" match on Saturday night in Annapolis, Md.
American defeated Army, 3-1, in last year's title match, while the Black Knights have won 10-straight "Star" matches against Navy.
"This is a big weekend for us, but it's important to keep it in perspective," said sixth-year head coach Alma Kovaci. "We're excited to get Patriot League play started and do so against American and Navy right away. We have played some tough competition on the road already this season, so I feel like the team is prepared for what will be a couple of tough tests this weekend."
Army enters Friday night's match with an 8-5 overall record, having placed second in four tough non-conference tournaments. The Black Knights currently lead the Patriot League in kills (13.26 per set), assists (12.46) and digs (18.15). Army's eight wins during non-league action lead the conference.
Tthe Black Knights have played their strengths during preseason and shown improvement in all facets of the game. Three-time All-Patriot League performer Ariana Mankus continues to hold down the outside hitter position, averaging 3.24 kills and 3.87 digs per set. Junior middle blocker Megan Wilton, already a two-time Patriot League Player of the Week honoree, leads the league in kills (3.43) and ranks third in blocks (1.00). Junior outside hitter Margaux Jarka has provided a solid complement to Mankus, averaging 2.35 kills and 1.59 digs per set this season. Jarka represented Army on the 2011 Patriot League All-Tournament Team.
Reigning Patriot League Setter of the Year Mary Vaccaro, a sophomore out of Orinda, Calif., picked up her first career Player of the Week citation on Monday. Vaccaro currently leads the league with a 10.31 assists-per-set average and is coming off a career-high eight kills in a sweep of Sacred Heart last Sunday at Gillis Field House.
Junior libero D.J. Phee has been the backbone of a staunch Black Knights' defense so far this season. Her 5.43 digs per set lead the Patriot League and are nearly a full dig-per-set more than any other player. Phee is a significant reason Army is holding its opponents to a .146 hitting percentage, which lands second in the conference. In addition to Wilton racking-up blocks, senior co-captain Francine Vasquez ranks second in the league with 18 service aces (0.39 per set).
Army is the only team other than American to win the Patriot League title since the Eagles joined the conference in 2001. The Black Knights took the 2009 championship, but American has won the last two titles. Head coach Barry Goldberg is in his 24th season at American and has his Eagles off to a 7-5 start to 2012.
"I know the team is excited for a rematch with American," Kovaci said. "It's important to emphasize that this is a new season with new opportunities. American has always been one of the top teams in our conference and it's exciting to get going with them right off the bat. The thing the team needs to keep in mind, however, is that Friday isn't the first time and won't be the last time that we'll play American. Every set and every point matters. We will go out there, give it our best and expect to win."
A balanced American team features preseason Patriot League Player of the Year Sara Rishell's team-high 2.62 kills per set. Rishell lands sixth in the Patriot League, just above classmate Kelly McCaddin's 2.56 mark. The league's top two blockers are on American's roster - junior Morgan Hendrix (1.25) and Bree Scarbrough (1.03).
Army got a preview of Navy's 2012 team, as both programs took part in the Service Academy Challenge at the Pentagon two weeks ago. The teams did not play one another at the event, saving both regular season meetings for Patriot League play. The Black Knights hold a 39-10 lead in the all-time series against the Mids, who boast a 4-8 record this season.
"We had a chance to see Navy at the Pentagon, and they are a much improved team," Kovaci noted. "I've seen them improve so much even from the Pentagon up until now. They will be very aggressive and give us all they have. That kind of effort is expected on both sides anytime it's an Army-Navy match."
Freshman middle blocker Katie Sylakowski's .305 hitting percentage this season lands second in the Patriot League, while junior outside hitter Erin Fortner's 3.03 kills per set list third. In addition to Sylakowski's impressive collegiate start, classmate Alex Karika (9.08 assists per set) ranks second to Vaccaro amongst the league's top setters.
Fans are encouraged to follow @Army_Volleyball on Twitter for all of the latest news and real-time match results. Live video webcasts of both matches this weekend are available by visiting the volleyball schedule page of www.goARMYsports.com. Current Knight Vision subscribers may use that username and password to access the Army-Navy match on Saturday night. Those wishing to watch Army vs. American, a nominal fee through Eagles Vision TV applies.