(MSUB Athletics photo)

BILLINGS, Mont. – The 2017 season will be the start of a new era for the Montana State University Billings volleyball team as 14 newcomers, including nine freshmen join the Yellowjackets in Casey Williams’ second season as head coach. The ‘Jackets return two players from the 2016 season in junior Miranda McConnell and sophomore Taylor Sherman. Sherman missed all of the ’16 season with an injury while McConnell played in 91 sets as a sophomore.

“Teams will not know what to expect of us since we are essentially putting a brand new team on the floor this year,” Williams said of the new look ‘Jackets. “I think we may be overlooked a little bit. We have to use that to our advantage. We will have the element of surprise when we show up to people’s gyms, hopefully they will be pleasant surprises. I think we have strong building blocks to continue the evolution of MSUB Volleyball and we’re in a good spot to work our way up.”

Some of the building blocks Williams and assistant coach Carly Wehling are hoping to build upon are four stand-out freshmen in Bayli Monck, Maddi Vigil, Izela Alvarez and Alexa Smythe. The quartet will likely be mainstays on the court throughout the season with Monck and Vigil looking like potential stars on the front row while Alvarez will start at libero and Smythe will lead the offense as the setter.

“A lot of our players are in the same boat being that they have never played at this level,” Williams said. “Once they get some experience and figure a few things out they will have the chance to be good players and contribute to our team.”

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Monck has shown well in the preseason displaying her versatility and athleticism in practice and scrimmages.

“We believe she can get some pretty high numbers offensively both in the front row and in the back row,” Williams said of Monck. “She has the opportunity to be a consistent go-to player for us.”

Vigil has also stood out as an athlete on the court but Williams was quick to note the leadership qualities that the Ogden, Utah native has displayed in her short time playing at the collegiate level.

“Maddi is going to do well,” Williams said. “She does not have the experience but she has already established herself as a leader on the court and will develop into a strong player.”

The team will look to their two returning players for leadership as both McConnell and Sherman were tabbed as captains by their new teammates. McConnell recorded 158 kills last season with a .211 attack percentage and 60 blocks.

“We are looking forward to having Miranda’s and Taylor’s leadership on the court,” Williams said. “With such a young team it is great to see our upperclassmen emerging as leaders.”

“It’s super exciting because we get to develop the new face of MSUB volleyball and I think it’s awesome that we get to create a new bond with each other,” Sherman said of the opportunity to work with her new teammates.

The 2017 team hopes to play a more connected style with a faster pace than the team was able to set in Williams’ first season. Smythe will be crucial to the Yellowjackets’ pace of play with her ability to move the ball around the floor and set up hitters for kills. Her intelligence and court sense will make a major impact on the quality of play for MSUB.

Alvarez will have the opportunity to lead the team in digs and set up Smythe as the starting libero. Williams remarked that the freshman from Dumas, Texas has displayed the consistency in character and play to put up numbers that the team needs from their defensive specialist.

“We need to polish our game, being very young we need to work on the mental part of the game,” Williams said of incorporating so many new faces to the program. “We have the talent but putting it all together is something that we will need to work on.”

The work will begin on Friday at 1 p.m. as MSUB will face Minnesota State University Moorhead followed by Minot State University at 7 p.m. in the Minot State Classic in Minot, N.D. The ‘Jackets will play two more contests on Saturday against South Dakota School of Mines and Technology at 9 a.m. and Bemidji State University at 1 p.m.

The ‘Jackets will finish their tournament season with the D2 West Region Volleyball Showcase the following weekend where they will have the opportunity to play four non-conference west-region opponents in Point Loma Nazarene, Cal State Dominguez Hills, Notre Dame De Namur University and Humboldt State University. MSUB dropped matches to Dominguez Hills and Humboldt State in last year’s showcase.

The tournaments provide the young Yellowjackets the opportunity to get crucial court time before the Great Northwest Athletic Conference (GNAC) schedule comes into play in mid-September.

“I am looking forward to us growing as a team and getting more comfortable with each other’s playing styles,” Williams said of the tournaments. “Eight wins is the overall goal but the big picture purpose of these tournaments is to prepare us for play in the GNAC. Hopefully we can get that strong bond to propel us into a strong start to the conference schedule.”

The GNAC looks to provide a formidable challenge on the court this season. Last year’s national championship runner-up and current No. 4 University of Alaska Anchorage was picked to win the GNAC crown for a third consecutive season. No. 12 Western Washington University was picked to finish second and Northwest Nazarene rounds out the preseason top-three. MSUB is picked to finish 11th in the preseason coaches poll after finishing last season 7-23 (5-15 GNAC) in ninth place. The ‘Jackets host the University of Alaska to open GNAC play on Friday, Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. followed by a matchup with No. 4 Alaska Anchorage on Saturday Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.

“I think it is going to be an eye-opening experience to transition from our preseason tournament to GNAC play,” said Williams. “We have an extremely competitive conference and I think it will be a bit of a shock at first. But, I think we will be able to compete and it will be a really good growing experience for us to compete with some of the top schools in the nation.”

After opening conference play in Alterowitz Gymnasium, MSUB will take its shortest road trip of the season on Tuesday, Sept. 9 when it takes the drive down Rimrock Road to play Rocky Mountain College at 7 p.m. It will be the first of two matches between the Yellowjackets and Bears as the teams will meet again at MSUB on Oct. 24.

Live video and statistics will be available for all MSUB home matches and all GNAC road contests throughout the 2016 season, through MSUB’s Stretch Internet portal.