It was two years ago when Erie Community College had its breakout season in women's volleyball.
For years, the program limped along, gaining just a handful of wins. Then came 2009, when the Kats were nationally ranked and advanced to the Region III semifinals.
While ECC finished a game below .500 last season, the Kats created a solid reputation in the area. That translated into a good recruiting class and when the freshmen bought into the team concept over the summer, it set the table for a solid 2011 campaign.
ECC is off to an 12-1 start while earning a No. 9 rank in the National Junior College Athletic Association poll.
"I knew from the beginning of the year we would have a tough team to beat because we had an excellent recruiting class," ECC coach Craig Starzynski said. "Even so, during the summer we had meetings to talk about how well we could potentially do. We knew we had to rely heavily on freshmen with only one sophomore in the starting lineup. I was a little nervous on how the girls would handle it, but they really meshed together. They come from winning and high-level high school and club programs. They understand what it takes to be successful and they invested themselves into this team.
"The girls are on three different campuses for their classes, so they don't necessarily get to see each other during the day. We really focus our practice time on coming together and becoming a family."
The quick start has helped the Kats gain momentum and fueled their desire to continue improving. ECC won three games against Region III opponents on Sunday. Their only loss this season was a four-game loss at Genesee Community College.
The lone sophomore in the Kats' starting lineup is setter Danielle Aurellio-Clark. A native of Lancaster, Aurellio-Clark was not eligible to play for ECC last year as she transferred from Buffalo State. That means although she has collegiate experience, she is still new to the Kats' program.
But she is running the offense smoothly and in step with powerful freshmen hitters, notably Katie Russi (Mount Mercy), Rylie Bean (Frontier) and Susan Muldoon (Mount Mercy).
"We're trying to run a quicker offense than a lot of teams are used to seeing," Starzynski said. "That's allowing us to hit with one or no blocks and that helps us get off to a good start."
A good start is always nice, but a strong finish is even better. In 2009, its best season to date, ECC went 35-7 overall but lost in five games to Jamestown Community College in the Region III semifinals. While the players have changed, the program has learned some lessons and is ready to take on the challenge of maintaining focus and a high level of play.
"While we're happy with how well we're doing now, we're working to be better and better each day," Starzynski said. "We've kind of instilled in the girls that most of the teams we play will be different at the end of the season. A lot of coaches have their teams playing well at the end of the year when it counts. We know we still have a long way to go, even with a great start."
The Kats defeated Monore in five games Wednesday night and play a tournament at Alfred State this weekend as they continue to aim for a spot in the regional tournament (Oct. 30 at Niagara County Community College). The winner advances to the national championship tournament in Rochester, Minn., Nov. 11.
Canisius College and the Western New York Collegiate Umpires Association will host the Nan Harvey Softball Fall Classic on Saturday and Sunday at the Northtown Center in Amherst. The Big 4 schools will meet on Saturday. The 10 a.m. games will feature Canisius against Niagara and St. Bonaventure against the University at Buffalo. At noon, Buffalo and Canisius will meet while Niagara and St. Bonaventure will play.
Games are at 10 a.m. and noon on Sunday but Edinboro will take the spot of Niagara. While the fall games serve as exhibitions in the non-traditional softball season, the Golden Griffins are enjoying their early year playing time. The Griffs are 2-0 and have outscored opponents, 27-8.
Buffalo State freshman running back Rich Pete was named the New Jersey Athletic Conference Offensive Rookie of the Week. Pete had 12 carries for 108 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown run, in the Bengals' 82-17 win over Western Connecticut State. In the game, Buffalo State set school records for most points in a game (82), total offense (702 yards) and touchdowns (11). The Bengals play at No. 10 Montclair State on Saturday.
University at Buffalo goalkeeper Ainsley Wheldon was named the Mid-American Conference Defensive Player of the Week after collecting two shutouts to lead the Bulls to the Big Four Classic title. Wheldon shut out Niagara and Canisius as Buffalo won the local tournament on Sunday. Through eight games, she leads the MAC in goals-against average (0.36), save percentage (.936) and shutouts (six). The Bulls finished their non-conference season with a 7-1 mark and open MAC play at 8 p.m. Friday, hosting Bowling Green in UB Stadium.