By Jason Finnell

After losing Brittany Nobilio, one of the more celebrated players in program history and NCAA record-holder for digs, to graduation, Eastern’s volleyball will be young and inexperienced coming into this year. But they hope to avoid the injury bug that has bitten them early in preseason camp, and that hindered the team last year.Coach Lori Duncan said the team was hurting after losing two juniors last year. Both girls lose a year of eligibility.

Duncan also faces the tough challenge of trying to replace Nobilio. She hopes to find three different players to replicate her success as the season progresses.

Replacing Nobilio’s libero position on the floor is sophomore Abby O’Connor. She finished second on the team in digs as a freshman with 228. She recorded a season-high in digs with 19 in only her second collegiate match against Southern Illinois.

Eastern also returns two key seniors – Amanda Wilson and Bridget Mustard – to help ease the new players’ adjustments along early in the season.

Wilson has earned a spot on the 2008 Preseason All-Ohio Valley Conference Volleyball first team. The 5’10” middle blocker led the team in kills (382), kills per game (3.71), total blocks (83) and points (438) last season. She finished eighth in the OVC in kills per game and seventh in points per game (4.25). She was one of only seven players in the conference selected to the first team.

In 2007, Mustard played in all of the team’s 103 games. She led the team with 34 service aces and ranked second on the squad with 66 blocks. She also earned the Ohio Valley Conference Medal of Honor, which is given annually to the student-athletes that achieve the highest grade point average in a conference-sponsored sport.

Coach Duncan was happy to have both girls return.

“They bring an awful lot to our program,” Duncan said. “They value the tradition.”

Other underclassmen are returning, as well, and help round out the roster. Sophomore setter Kate Hendle led the team with 872 assists her freshman year. She finished with 54 assists in her first collegiate match against Towson and had a season-high 58 against Southeast Missouri State.

Sophomore outside hitter Amanda Fago finished second on the team with 279 kills, an average of three kills per game and 25 service aces, while finishing with the third most points recorded on the team with 313.

Lindsey Loescher comes to Eastern after helping McHenry Community College to a 40-9 record, while earning first team NJCAA All-American honors after finishing third in the nation with an average of over five kills per game.

Junior middle blocker and Kishwaukee Community College transfer Autumn Harms comes to the Colonels having earned first team all-tournament honors in 2007 with 444 kills, a .360 hitting percentage and 151 blocks. In her two seasons at Kishwaukee, the team compiled a 102-5 record, winning a national championship last year.

Like Harms, junior defensive specialist Nicole Mulhall comes to Eastern from Kishwaukee.

There, she was the team captain and finished the season with 320 digs.

With several junior college players with championship experience, the combination of key seniors Wilson and Mustard, and the young players who’ve already seen lots of playing time, the Colonels expect to do well in the OVC this season.

“We have the components to be competitive,” Duncan said. “And I think we have the right combination of players emotionally to do well this year.”

The team starts its season in the sunshine state, when it travels to Tampa to take on Northeastern University on August 28. They’ll stay to take on the University of South Florida on August 30 and Grambling State University later that same day. And at beginning of September, they’ll travel Pittsburgh for the Pitt Classic.