Chad Callihan's Georgia Southern volleyball has plenty of momentum heading into the 2011 season.
The Lady Eagles (27-9 in 2010) lost only three seniors from a team that won the Southern Conference tournament by sweeping College of Charleston and played in the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2003.
They also return three preseason, All-Southern Conference players - Kate Van Dyke, Bethany Sanford and Parker Small - to lead the league.
The Eagles also took a step forward by winning the program's first set in the NCAA tournament in a first-round loss to Florida State.
It was the third tournament appearance for the program and first for the current team.
"It was one of the best experiences of my entire life," said Hannah Nelson, one of four seniors on the 2011 team. "We clicked so well, especially in that [SoCon Championship] game against Charleston. We came together as one, and that's really what we strive for every single time."
The Eagles, who have gone 64-37 since Callihan took over in 2008, have a new sense of confidence in 2011.
"The biggest thing for us is that we know we can do it," said Callihan, "and that is a mental hurdle so many teams struggle to get over sometimes.
"I think that we understand that this is a new year. The expectation of winning was there last year and it's here again this year. The personality of the group is a little different this year, but I do believe that we've established a winning culture over these last few seasons."
The Eagles get the 2011 season underway today, hosting Montana State, Jacksonville, Stephen F. Austin and South Dakota State in the two-day, SpringHill Suites Invitational, on a makeshift home court.
Hanner Fieldhouse, where GSU plays its home games, suffered water damage due to a broken air conditioner over the summer and is undergoing renovations, so the Eagles will play in the Old Hanner Gym in the same building, which has been upgraded to include a temporary playing surface, a scoreboard, a PA system and roughly 1,000 seats for spectators.
"I think we're trying to make the very best of a really bad situation," said Callihan, who spent much of Wednesday laying out the tape on the temporary surface. "We have developed a nice home-court advantage in Hanner Fieldhouse and can't wait to get back out there, but the season has to go on. We're doing everything we can to create an intimate venue — we don't have a choice because it's tiny — but we're doing our best to put a facility together that out fans will enjoy and will continue to give us that home-court advantage we've come to love."
The Lady Eagles have spent the better part of the last three years promoting their sport, and it has paid off. The crowds have grown each year since Callihan arrived.
"We've done a lot of promotion around the community and the entire school," said Nelson. "Getting everyone to come out and celebrate with us makes it that much sweeter and that much more fun."
The season begins at noon against Stephen F. Austin.
Matt Yogus can be reached at (912) 489-9408.
GSU SpringHill Suites Invitational
Montana State vs. Jacksonville
Georgia Southern vs. Stephen F. Austin
South Dakota State vs. Montana State
Jacksonville vs. Stephen F. Austin
South Dakota State vs. Georgia Southern
South Dakota State vs. Stephen F. Austin
Jacksonville vs. Georgia Southern
Stephen F. Austin vs. Montana State
Jacksonville vs. South Dakota State
Montana State vs. Georgia Southern