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GC enters new season in new conference

By DUSTIN KENT
News Herald Assistant Sports Editor

Posted Aug 21, 2017 at 3:27 AM Updated Aug 21, 2017 at 3:27 AM

 

PANAMA CITY — Gulf Coast begins its regular season Tuesday night in New Orleans with a road contest against Dillard University. The Lady Commodores enter the season as they do any other, with the hope of winning the Panhandle Conference and making it to postseason play.

The road to get there is a bit trickier this season, however, with a bulked up Panhandle Conference providing more competition and a narrower path to the postseason. The league expanded from two teams – Gulf Coast and Pensacola State – to five this summer with the additions of St. Johns River, Santa Fe, and Florida State College at Jacksonville.

 

All of the teams will play a home-and-home with each other and the top two teams at the end of the season will advance to the state tournament Nov. 4-6 in Bradenton. It’s a big change for the Lady Commodores, who previously had to beat only Pensacola State in a best-of-five series to make the playoffs, but it’s one that Gulf Coast coach Kristian Robertson said she was happy to see.

 

“It’s going to be a really good conference and it’s exciting to be playing other teams besides just Pensacola,” she said. “We actually have more

competition, so it’s definitely exciting and the girls are excited about it as well.”

 

Gulf Coast finished 19-8 last season and missed out on the state tournament after losing a fifth and deciding match to Pensacola State in four sets. To get back in position to return to the postseason, the Lady Commodores will have to replace several key players from last year’s team, including top setter and assist leader Delia Morin, top defender and digs leader Tessa Morken, and top two hitters and kill leaders Jenna Erwin and Jordan Rayburn.

 

The Lady Commodores do return their third- and fourth-best kills producers in Madison Pickens and Taylor Lawhon, chosen as captains this year, who combined for 208 kills in 2016 compared to 88 errors. Shelby Freese also returns for her sophomore season after producing 39 kills as a freshman.

Gulf Coast’s offense will be bolstered by a pair of freshmen in twins Mary and Madison Daniel of Monroe, Ga., as well as freshman setter Jamie Clark of Melbourne. Briahna Slater of Seminole steps in for Morken as the team’s top defensive specialist. Robertson said she likes her freshman class and specifically praised the Daniel twins for the energy and attitude they’ve brought into the program.

 

“They’re just so energetic and constantly talking and encouraging their teammates,” she said. “Madison is a great passer and Mary is a good hitter, so they kind of balance each other out. They’re not the tallest (at 5-foot-7), but they have a great vertical and just their intensity and effort is really fun to watch.”

 

Lack of height could be an issue this season for the Lady Commodores, who don’t have a single player 6-foot or taller. Lawhon is the tallest at 5-11, with Pickens, Freese, and sophomore middle blocker Brittany Niles each measuring 5-10. It’s an issue Robertson said her team is going to have to overcome with effort and consistent execution.

 

“We’re not a tall team, so in our defense we obviously have to be pretty much impeccable and scrappy,” she said. “Hopefully our defense is where it needs to be to win games in conference play.”

 

In the effort category, Robertson said she has been very pleased with what she has seen from her players thus far.

 

“I think the energy and intensity is definitely a big change from last year,” she said. “We had a couple of girls who had high intensity on the court, but I can really tell the difference between this year’s team and last year’s team in the talking and the effort being given. It’s all of them instead of just a couple.”

 

The execution has also been on display at a high level thus far, according to Robertson, who said the Lady Commodores are already operating with mid-season focus.

 

“I’ve definitely noticed a lot of consistency in practice, definitely throughout some of our passing and serving drills,” she said. “It’s more consistency and better than we did last year. We’ve had better consistency in these last two weeks than in the whole season last year. I’m excited to see what the girls will be like by the end of the season.”

 

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