NEW ORLEANS - A proper noun with four letters and three syllables dominates the thoughts of Christabell Hamilton, the second-year coach of women's volleyball at Xavier University of Louisiana.
"Iowa," Hamilton said. "That's where we want to go this season. That's what we're aiming for. We want to go one step further than last season."
Specifically, the Gold Nuggets want to be in Sioux City, Iowa, with 23 other schools for pool play in the NAIA National Championship the week after Thanksgiving. If Xavier makes it that far, it will be another positive step for a program which took what seemed like a zillion positive steps in 2011.
Xavier, with Hamilton in her first collegiate head-coaching position a year ago, performed a 180: first winning season, first conference championships - regular season (10-0), then tournament (4-0) - first berth in the NAIA National Championship and the fourth-best turnaround in the NAIA (from 11-26 to 23-7). Hamilton became the third coach - the second since the 1930s - to win a conference championship in a debut season at Xavier. Hamilton accomplished all that with little lead time; she joined the staff June 14.
"Christabell raised the bar for Xavier volleyball so high," XU athletics director Dennis Cousin said. "We've won a lot of championships at Xavier, but what Christabell did last year has got to be one of the best coaching jobs we've ever had."
Six letterwomen - including starters Taylor Reuther, Moira Kirk, Chinedu Echebelem, Kerris Crier and Jeanay Butler - return. The team has no seniors, and Crier is the lone junior.
Reuther, an outside hitter, led Xavier in kills (326), aces (55) and digs (329) in 2011. She was All-GCAC, GCAC Tournament Co-MVP, GCAC Player of the Week three times and second-team All-Louisiana. Reuther ranked 11th in the NAIA - third among freshmen - in aces per set. She produced a team-best 13 kill-dig double-doubles, 10 more than Xavier had in 2010. Reuther had 17 matches with 10 or more kills and 18 matches with 10 or more digs.
Hamilton considered Reuther the team's best player in 2011, but it was Kirk who was voted GCAC Freshman of the Year. Kirk, a middle blocker also chosen All-GCAC and All-GCAC Tournament, ranked second to Reuther with 306 kills and led the Gold Nuggets with a .365 hitting percentage and 92 blocks. She ranked 11th in the NAIA in hitting percentage and had 16 matches with 10 or more kills, including a team-best eight matches in a row during the season's final month.
Echebelem, an outside hitter, ranked third on the Nuggets with 187 kills, 181 digs and 35 blocks. She too was All-GCAC.
Crier, a middle blocker, missed the final nine matches because of illness but still ranked second on the team with a .275 hitting percentage - an improvement of more than 150 points from her freshman season - and 42 blocks. She had 93 kills. Because this is the fifth season of a program with a split existence - teams in 2003 and 2004, then a five-year suspension following Hurricane Katrina - Crier is the first to play three seasons.
Butler, an outside hitter and right-side hitter, recorded 90 kills and 90 blocks and was second on the Gold Nuggets with 34 aces. Xavier was 6-1 when Butler recorded five or more kills and 9-0 when she served two or more aces.
The other returning letterwoman is setter Alexandria Rencher, who had 199 assists, 47 digs and 17 assists in 19 matches, mostly in relief.
The 14-player roster will include eight freshmen: setters Jodi Chatters and Franziska Pirkl, liberos/defensive specialists Alexis Clay and Darian Harris, middle blockers Claudia Haywood and Jodi Hill, right-side hitter Patrice Smith and outside hitter CeCe Williams. Hamilton says her newcomers are capable of offsetting the loss of four seniors: setter Patrice Hightower (All-GCAC in 2011), hitter Iva Bobkova (All-GCAC in 2010) and defenders Celeste Poe and Joyy Joseph (a combined nearly 900 digs the past two seasons).
For the second straight season, there are no 6-footers on the roster. But that wasn't a major problem a year ago. Xavier found ways to win, particularly in extended matches. After losing their opener in five sets at Belhaven, the Gold Nuggets were 10-0 in matches which lasted longer than three sets. Xavier was 12-32 in such matches during its first three seasons.
"Last year we stressed fundamentals - serving, passing, conditioning, playing with passion and desire. That had a lot to do with our ability to hang around and win the longer matches," Hamilton said. "We'll be a little bit taller team this year, but we still won't be the tallest team around. But we will work as hard as any team and put ourselves in situations to be successful."
Xavier's 24-match regular-season schedule will open Aug. 24 with a pair of NAIA preseason top-25 opponents: 20th-ranked Lindsey Wilson and third-ranked Lee (Tenn.), both in the Lee Invitational. The following day the Gold Nuggets will play Union (Ky.), the defending Appalachian Athletic Conference regular-season champion.
"Those first three matches will be great tests for our team and a great measuring stick," Hamilton said.
There will be nine home matches, with the first Sept. 4 against city rival Loyola. Volleyball will be the first XU team to compete in the 4,500-seat Convocation Academic Center, which neared completion in late August. But the first match in the new facility may not be until Sept. 18 (Mobile) or Oct. 5 (Edward Waters).
The GCAC schedule again will consist of 10 matches, but this year there will be no neutral-site contests. Second-year member Philander Smith will play host to the conference tournament Nov. 8-10 in Little Rock, Ark., with the winner receiving the league's automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship.
Xavier will attempt to become the first HBCU (historically black college or university) to qualify for the NAIA National Championship in consecutive seasons. Xavier also aims for the first HBCU victory at the NAIA National Championship since Saint Augustine's in 1981. If the Gold Nuggets succeed in the latter - in a first-round match Nov. 17 at a campus site - they'll earn that much-desired trip to Iowa.
"I'm really excited about this season and working with a great group of young women," Hamilton said.