TOWSON, Md. — With a limited roster size that did not include a single senior, head coach Kelli Wilkinson knew that there would be rough patches in her first season at the helm of Goucher's volleyball program.
The Gophers actually started both their non-conference and conference seasons strong, winning three of their four matches at the season-opening Eastern Mennonite Invitational and beginning Landmark play with their first win over Catholic since 1998.
That victory over the Cardinals improved their season record to 7-8. Gradually, though, the team began to wear down, and ultimately they had to settle for a final mark of 9-22 and a tie for sixth place in the conference standings.
"It was definitely a challenge only having 10 players on the roster," Wilkinson said. "We were never able to scrimmage 6 v. 6 in practice, and all season long we had players playing in positions where they had little or no experience out of necessity. With that being said, they never complained and we were competitive in almost every match we played in."
Goucher also had to battle through a schedule which contained only eight home matches out of 31 total contests. Aside from a stretch in early October where the Gophers played six of eight at the Decker Sports & Recreation Center, the team rarely had a chance to compete on its home court.
Catholic entered its Sept. 23 matchup against Goucher with a record of 15-1, and the host Cardinals quickly claimed the first set by a score of 25-11. The Gophers took the next two sets, but they surrendered the fourth by a wide 25-3 margin and trailed 11-10 in the fifth before rallying to take the final five points in a thrilling victory.
That match was their second five-set win of the season, as the team previously began the fall with a rally from two sets down to defeat Hood in Wilkinson's first match as head coach on Aug. 29.
Goucher returned to Washington the following weekend but could not keep up its momentum, dropping matches to Scranton and Merchant Marine. The Catholic victory would turn out to be the team's only triumph in conference play, though they did take a set from eventual Landmark runner-up Susquehanna in a home contest on Oct. 4.
Juniata, which ended the year ranked 10th in the country at the Division III level, ran away with its eighth-consecutive conference title.
Sarah Johnson (Ridgewood, N.J./Ridgewood), who completed her third season as the program's primary setter this fall, became just the fourth player in Gopher history to reach 2,000 assists for her career during Goucher's game against the Crusaders on Oct. 4. Johnson will enter 2015 with 2,266 assists, and she is will be within striking distance of Laurie Bender (2,325) and Claire Sauvage-Mar (2,912) in the career rankings.
Erika DiPasquale (Paramus, N.J./Paramus), one of three freshmen to receive significant playing time in 2014, established herself as one of the top servers in the Landmark. DiPasquale fired 67 aces this fall, placing her second in the conference and only three behind Scranton's Lizzy Zimmermann in the top spot. She had mulitiple aces in 15 different matches, including a season-high of nine against Rosemont on Oct. 11.
Hannah Kuehl (Plymouth, N.H./Plymouth Regional), meanwhile, developed into the team's offensive leader. The junior middle hitter led the way in kills in 21 matches this year, and she had a team-high 282 kills for the season. Kuehl also finished fourth in the Landmark with 41 solo blocks.
Off the court, the program has registered a grade-point average over 3.0 for nine of the last 10 semesters, and all five Gopher juniors earned spots on the Landmark Academic Honor Roll this fall. DiPasquale additionally organized a Coaches vs. Cancer event which raised hundreds of dollars for the American Cancer Society back in October.
While the Gophers dealt with some growing pains this fall, they will bring a much more experienced squad back in 2015. Wilkinson also hopes to bring in several new recruits to add some much needed depth to the program.
"A tremendous strength of the volleyball program here at Goucher is the attitude and outlook of the team," she said. "While some people may feel intimidated or threatened by the prospect of recruits, my girls embrace it and welcome them with open arms. They all know that in order to take this program to the next level, we need to add more quality players.
"We are really excited about the recruits who have expressed interest in Goucher," Wilkinson concluded. "With no one graduating and with the game experience the team got this season, the future is really bright for our program."