NEW ALBANY — Although the NAIA national tourney won’t start until late April, IU Southeast begins what it hopes will be a long season tonight.
In July, the NAIA Council of Presidents voted to postpone all 2020 fall national championships to the spring. However in August the River States Conference, of which IUS is a member, announced that it would move ahead with fall sports with the stipulation that it could “still opt to move some or all of the regular-season competitions or postseason championships to winter (or) spring if necessary.”
So the Grenadiers will tip off a 2020 campaign that could conceivably last until May — the NAIA Championships are scheduled for April 27 through May 1 in Sioux City, Iowa — at 7 p.m. this evening against new RSC member Oakland City in the spectator-free IUS Activities Building.
“We’re excited,” IUS coach Eric Brian said.
There are plenty of reasons for optimism. The Grenadiers return three first-team all-league performers from a team that went 24-7, including 13-3 in the RSC, last season while welcoming in a large freshman class.
IUS lost last year’s kill-leader, Alyssa Cosgrove, to graduation. The Grenadiers also lost Parker Andres, who was third on the team in kills, from last season’s roster. The New Albany native elected not to play due to some “physical and health reasons,” according to Brian.
“We’re going to feel both of those losses,” the coach said, “but we return a really good core group.”
Back to lead the way are the aforementioned trio of 2019 all-conference selections. They are senior middle blocker Alexis Bassett, senior setter Hannah Sipe and senior libero Kenna Burman.
The 5-foot-11 Bassett, a Jeffersonville High School graduate, topped the team in hitting percentage (.352) while ranking second in kills (285) and solo blocks (12) last year.
Sipe dished out a team-high 1,013 assists while also ranking second in service aces (50) and third in digs (242).
Burman, the reigning RSC Defender of the Year, topped the team in digs (635) while also ranking third in assists (100).
Also back is 6-2 sophomore middle blocker Jennie Malone, who led the Grenadiers in solo blocks (34) and block assists (30). Wednesday, both Bassett and Malone were named 2019-20 Daktronics-NAIA Scholar-Athletes for having cumulative grade-point averages of 3.5 or higher.
Other returnees include junior setter/defensive specialist Lexie Fisher, junior outside hitter Delaney Nichols, junior middle blocker Makendri Fisher and sophomore defensive specialist Santina Schembra.
Additionally, Brian welcomes in seven freshmen — setter Brandy Eisenback, right-side hitter Izzy Stallard, defensive specialist Kaylee Newsom, outside hitters Emilee Organ and Hannah Miller, setter McKenzie Wright and middle blocker Abigail Vogel.
“We’ve covered every position on the court; we’ve added a lot of depth to every position,” Brian said. “They’re a really talented group, probably one of my best classes.”
Among those, Brian said Vogel, from Jennings County; Organ, a North Knox High School graduate; Stallard, a product of perennial power Avon; and Newsom, a Louisville Eastern grad, will likely contribute immediately.
The Grenadiers were picked to finish second, behind IU Kokomo (which has won four of the last five conference tournaments), in the preseason coaches poll.
“They’re clearly the favorite, they have a great group returning,” Brian said of the Cougars. “I think it’s a good challenge for us, but I think we’re capable. ... Kokomo is the champ, so we have to take it from them.”
Spectators won’t be allowed at tonight’s match, or Sept. 25’s match against Asbury (Ky.) due to COVID-19 concerns.
“Limiting the number of people in our building protects our student-athletes and staff and gives us the best chance to mitigate our risk of spreading the virus in an enclosed environment,” IUS Athletic Director Joe Glover said in a statement earlier this month. “We are hopeful that this will change as guidance is updated and we better understand how COVID-19 is affecting our program.”
The Grenadiers have eight home matches scheduled between Oct. 13 and Oct. 30.
“Our main goal is completing a fall sports season. Our policies and procedures are always changing and evolving and we will continue to review these guidelines as information changes,” Glover said.
For their part, though, the Grenadiers are just happy to be playing.
“I think the girls are really thrilled,” Brian said. “At the end of the day, everybody just wants a season.”