Lady Commodores look to reclaim Panhandle crown
By DUSTIN KENT
News Herald Assistant Sports Editor
NEW ORLEANS — Gulf Coast begins a new era today when it opens the 2016 season on the road against Dillard University. The Lady Commodores will have nine freshmen playing their first official college match, while Kristian Robertson makes her debut as the Gulf Coast head coach.
Robertson, a former Gulf Coast player, took over in June when her former coach Kyle Peck took an assistant coach position with Carson-Newman. She spent the past two seasons as an assistant at GulfCoast and said Monday that her familiarity with the players had made it much easier for her and her players to adjust to the new role.
“The transition has been pretty smooth so far,” Robertson said. “I’ve gotten a lot of support from (Gulf Coast women’s basketball coach and athletic director) Roonie (Scovel) and the other coaches here as well. It’s kind of nice having sophomores who already know me and my style of coaching.”
The Lady Commodores have six sophomores back from last year’s team, including top setter and assist leader Delia Moran, starting libero Tessa Morken, and outside hitter Jordan Rayburn, who was second on the team in kills in 2015. Morken led the team in digs.
Robertson said that trio of sophomore stars has already been an invaluable asset for a team with so many newcomers still trying to find their way.
“They have absolutely been leaders on the court,” she said. “Jordan Rayburn has been more vocal, DD (Moran) has definitely been showing her leadership skills, and Tessa is a real big part of our team with her defense. They’ve all been great.”
Jenna Erwin, a 5-foot-9 freshman from Jacksonville, and 5-10 freshman Shelby Freese of Navarre will look to provide some punch with Rayburn as outside hitters. The Lady Commodores have to replace their two starting middle blockers, Jessica Fabian and Brooklynn Roberts, with a pair of freshmen: 5-11 Taylor Lawhorn of Wakulla and 5-10 Madison Pickens of Sneads.
Robertson said she was very happy with what she saw from the freshman duo in the Lady Commodores’ preseason scrimmage matches against Dalton State and Dillard over the weekend.
“They’re freshmen and don’t have as much experience as the sophomores, but going into their first game I thought they did really well,” she said. “All you can ask is for them to play hard and call their sets, find their blockers on the other side of the net, and they did really well.”
Gulf Coast was dominant in the scrimmage victories, both 3-0 sweeps, and Robertson said she was impressed by her team’s preseason form, particularly their chemistry and communication on the court.
“We were really sound as a team,” she said. “The freshmen and sophomores all meshed together very well. They were all vocal and had a lot of energy on the court. It’s something in the first game you don’t expect players to do. For them to come and be ready to play shows that we
have a lot of potential. I’m really excited to match up with Pensacola and see how we do against them.”
The Lady Commodores will make their Panhandle Conference debut Sept. 14 at Pensacola State in the first of a potential five meetings between the league rivals. The first to win three games in the series advances to the state tournament. After winning the previous two conference titles, Gulf Coast had its crown usurped last season by the Lady Pirates, who won three of the first four meetings to clinch.
Robertson said it’s too early to project how the two teams will match up with each other until they actually share the court, but she’s confident that her players have what it takes to reclaim their position atop the Panhandle standings.
“I’ve seen a little bit of (Pensacola’s) play, but you just never know until that time,” she said. “Our team could look good right now and then get under pressure and not be able to make it work when it comes time for conference play. But I think these girls are absolutely ready and prepared to go take that conference title back.