0

ASU volleyball opens season with high expectations

Albany State setter Amanda Cook has become the leader of the Lady Rams in just her first year with the team. (Staff photo: John Millikan)

Albany State setter Amanda Cook has become the leader of the Lady Rams in just her first year with the team. (Staff photo: John Millikan)

photo

Albany State senior Ashley Johnson is the top returning hitter for the Lady Rams this season and, along with middle hitter Jillian Anderson, will be the main option for setter Amanda Cook. (Staff photo: John Millikan)

ALBANY — Amanda Cook had one thought when she saw Albany State middle hitter Jillian Anderson leap into the air for a kill during a recruiting visit last year.

“It was kind of scary when I came here and watched,” Cook said with a laugh earlier this week. “When I came and watched the game, (Anderson) was so intense. And I liked it.”

Anderson and the rest of the Lady Rams have recently grown a liking for Cook, too.

After her campus visit, Cook agreed to transfer to ASU from St. Petersburg College in Florida and has since become the Lady Rams’ starting setter and a player that coach Robert Skinner says holds the entire team together.

“How Amanda goes is how we go,” Skinner said. “She is the glue of this team. I have already told her that and put a lot of pressure on her. She has done a good job of accepting that. If they would vote for a team captain this year, they would probably vote for Jillian or Ashley (Johnson). If I was going to vote for a team captain, I would vote for Amanda.”

Cook is a setter by trade and takes over the position that Jennifer Johnson, who graduated and had to move from libero to setter her senior season, held last year.

“I’m like the quarterback. I don’t mind. I love it,” said Cook, a 5-foot-5 native of Kenneth City, Fla. “I love them looking up to me and me holding it together. They support that and want to me to take charge and lead. I am the one who touches the ball every time and creates the play.”

Cook’s top two targets this season will be Anderson (Sr., 5-7) and outside hitter Johnson (Sr., 5-6), while hitters Jennifer Evans (Jr., 5-7) and Amber Gatling (Sr., 5-8) will also start today and Sunday when the Lady Rams open their season in the University of West Florida Invitational. Freshmen hitters Jasmine Johnson (5-6), Kristen Randolph (5-7) and Nicole Lamb (5-9) will give Cook even more options off the bench.

“(Cook) is just that good, and she can be even better if they perform athletically around her,” Skinner said.

And ASU might have two of the most athletic hitters in the conference in Anderson, who calls herself a “jumper who learned to play volleyball,” and Johnson, who led the team in kills last season. Johnson is battling nagging injuries to both her back and shoulder but should be at full strength when the Lady Rams hit conference play midway through the season.

It’s those two seniors who will provide the firepower for Cook.

“We are definitely going to be key, especially with it being our senior year,” Johnson said. “We have been working hard and pushing all the girls and working on our jumping ability and hitting ability, but we are ready.”

The Lady Rams have had to move on without outside hitter Sharme Ridley, who led the team in kills last season as a sophomore but transferred to Kennesaw State during the offseason.

“That’s a huge loss,” Skinner said. “She was our No. 2 hitter last year and did so much for the team and brought so much energy. Losing her is going to hurt.”

The return of Anderson and Johnson, however, make it a little easier to move on.

“They can hold their own with any team in the conference,” Skinner said. “They are going to be key for us.”

Sophomore Kaliah Carter will start at libero, and junior Desiree Hardy will be the designated passer for a Lady Rams team that went undefeated (16-0) against conference teams in the 2012 regular season but fell into the losers’ bracket early in the conference tournament before battling back and eventually losing to Clark Atlanta in the championship match. It was the third straight time the Lady Rams had finished runners-up in the conference after winning the tournament nine years in a row.

“We want to win it bad this year, especially because we know we were supposed to win it last year,” Johnson said. “We just ran out of gas at the end. We want the ring so bad this year. All the other teams better watch out. We are coming with a bigger and better team than last year.”