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Merced College older, wiser ... better?

Last season it was easy.

With a team full of freshmen around her, Kristen Kronberg assumed a natural leadership role as the only sophomore on Merced College 's volleyball team.

While the freshmen took their lumps adjusting to the collegiate game, Kronberg emerged as the Lady Devils' go-to option.

The biggest question for MC coach Jessica Casey heading into the 2008 campaign is this: Who among her seven returners is willing to try on Kronberg's shoes?

"I think we're still waiting to see," Casey said. "You'll see some players take the lead on some occasions, but no one really has done it consistently yet."

According to Casey's players, that may be the plan.

"It's not about just one of us stepping up," sophomore outside hitter Nicole Blades-Moore said. "Different sophomores can take that role at any time."

"All the sophomores bring a different ability to the floor, so it really depends on the situation," defensive specialist Kylie Lax added.

That wide range of skill sets has Casey and her players excited.

A quick glance into the rafters of Merced College's gym shows that it's been 28 years since an MC volleyball team has raised a banner.

Both Casey and her squad believe the potential's there to end that streak.

"That's the goal," Blades-Moore said. "We learned a lot last season and we're ready to show it."

With Blades-Moore and Kayla Ryan swinging away from the outside, Sharde' Carter and Beth Flowers causing havoc in the middle, Samantha Bussey setting and Miki Shido and Lax getting a hand on everything in the back row, Casey certainly has a solid base.

Now, add in talented freshman Shannon McMillin (Golden Valley), Kayla Clarot (Buhach Colony) and Laura Meller (Merced) and this group's potential is obvious.

"We're an excellent defensive team and we have some pretty good offensive players," Casey said. "If we can get down our timing between our setters and our hitters, we could do very well."

MC started the season positively, winning two of three games at the Modesto Classic over the weekend.

The Lady Devils will try to ride the momentum into their home debut against Monterey Peninsula tonight at 6 p.m.

"We weren't really happy with how we played this weekend," Lax said. "That's probably a good thing, though.

"We won two games and we're complaining because we know we can play better."