CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Having helped Lee University reach its first NAIA final fours in both volleyball and women's basketball as a junior transfer from Berry College, senior Kayla Carlisle has enjoyed another first this fall -- No. 1 in the national volleyball rankings.
But that and the Lady Flames' unbeaten record will be challenged next week in the NAIA tournament, and Carlisle thinks she and her teammates will be up for it.
"We still have stuff to prove," said the 6-foot-3 middle blocker who was voted the MVP of the Southern States Athletic Conference tournament for the second year in a row.
The Lady Flames (35-0) will open pool play on Nov. 30 in Sioux City, Iowa, where coach Andrea Hudson said "probably four or five teams could win the national tournament," including three-time defending champion and third-ranked Fresno Pacific (29-2).
The 20th-year Lee coach acknowledged that last year's team wanted only to "get out of pool play" for the first time at a national, whereas her 2010 Lady Flames have pointed toward the championship from the start, "and they know what they have to do to make that happen."
According to versatile All-SSAC outside hitter Stephanie Todd, "Last year a kind of new fire was lit under us. We saw what was possible, but we were late realizing it. This year we have even more talent and experience, and we see winning it all as a reachable goal."
Winning them all now is reachable, too, although Todd said a perfect season is more of a "perk."
Hudson pointed out, though, that the players treated their three five-set victories, including coming back from an 0-2 deficit against Taylor on Oct. 29 at Georgetown, Ky., "almost like losing."
All of Lee's returning players plus Brazilian transfers Arlene Ferreira and Valquiria Caboclo from Texas-Brownsville -- which made the final eight in 2009 -- know what it's like to get close to a national title, and that helps, Hudson said. Brownsville is ranked No. 2 and is 34-1, having lost only to Lee.
Ferreira, an athletic 5-foot-8 junior, was a first-team All-American at the Texas school and was the SSAC player of the year this season. She leads the Lady Flames in kills, digs and aces.
"She certainly is an all-around player, and with her experience coming from Brazil and her maturity, she is up there with the top players we've had," Hudson said.
Ferreira said she greatly enjoys her new school -- the "atmosphere," her professors and the fact that with Hudson "it's not just about volleyball, but about what I'm going to be in the future."
Caboclo missed some time early in the season with an ankle injury, but the 5-11 sophomore middle blocker also quickly established herself as an All-SSAC first-teamer. In the Lady Flames' two-setter system, she is paired with Gretchen Higdon from Ooltewah; Carlisle plays when Kelsey Leffew is on the floor. Leffew has averaged 6.3 assists a set, while Higdon has averaged 5.5.
The almost equal use of two setters keeps both fresh and opponents unable to settle in against a particular pattern.
"Another thing we have looked for in the last few years is versatility," Hudson said. "We try to use not-normal types of volleyball setups, and we need to have players open to that and coachable in that."
Junior All-SSAC first-teamer Christa Hutchison and freshman Irene Ojukwu from Brazil also fit that criteria, and junior Sarah Smith from Ooltewah and senior Lindsay Shein add defensive strength.