NEW ORLEANS – Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and North Texas topped the preseason Sun Belt Conference volleyball poll, while MT’s Maria Szivos and Arkansas State’s Megan Baska headline the preseason all-conference team, as voted on by the league’s 12 head coaches.  UL was picked 4th of 7 in the West division.

The teams were predicted to top their respective divisions with WKU and MT picked to share the East Division crown, and North Texas was voted to repeat as West Division champs after splitting the division title with Arkansas State in 2010.

Szivos was named the Preseason Player of the Year, and Baska was named the Preseason Defensive Player of the Year.

The Sun Belt’s 2010 NCAA Tournament participants, MT and WKU, both earned 66 points and six first place votes to split the East. The Blue Raiders and Lady Toppers met in the Sun Belt Championship match a season ago with Middle Tennessee claiming its second consecutive SBC Tournament crown and fourth overall after securing the league’s regular season title too. The Blue Raiders became the first host school to win the Sun Belt Tournament since UALR accomplished the feat in 1998.

FIU came in third in the East Division with 48 points, followed by South Alabama (28 points), Florida Atlantic (26 points) and Troy (18 points).

After one of the best seasons in school history last year, North Texas tops the West Division with 65 points and seven first place votes. The Mean Green capped the 2010 campaign with just their fifth 20-win season in school history and clinched a share of the West Division title. NT’s trip to the Sun Belt Tournament semifinals was just the third in program history and the first appearance since 2006.

Arkansas State, the 2010 West Division Co-Champions, narrowly followed North Texas with 60 points and four first place votes. Also receiving a first place vote is Denver, coming in third with 52 points. Rounding out the poll is Louisiana-Lafayette (34 points), UALR (29 points) and Louisiana-Monroe (12 points).

Szivos made an immediate impact in her first season in Murfreesboro after transferring from the University of New Orleans. A First Team All-Sun Belt and All-Sun Belt Tournament selection in 2010, the senior outside hitter averaged 2.49 kills per set to go along with 1.26 digs and an impressive .316 attack percentage. Szivos was also a force to be reckoned with in the service game, leading the team with 38 aces or .33 per set.

Baska was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference second team and tabbed the SBC Defensive Player of the Year after capturing four Player of the Week awards as a true freshman, including the first in her first weekend as a Red Wolf. She was selected as a Collegiate Volleyball Update Top Performer of the Week and Rising Star of the 2010 freshmen class. Baska totaled 564 digs to rank seventh on the ASU single-season digs chart and led the league with a 5.08 digs per set average, which ranked 37th nationally.

The Lady Toppers posted the most players on the preseason all-conference team with three: junior Jordyn Skinner, senior Tiffany Elmore and sophomore Melanie Stutsman.

Skinner was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team last season after finishing the year ranked second among Lady Toppers with 351 digs (2.97 per set) and third on the team with 298 kills (2.53 per set.) She also recorded 61 blocks while tallying 36 service aces and 87 assists.

Elmore was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference first team and earned honorable mention All-South Region honors after leading WKU with 339 kills (2.80 per set), a .358 hitting percentage and 139 blocks (1.15 per set), all career high numbers. The senior began 2010 by earning a spot on the preseason all-conference team and ended the season first in the Sun Belt in blocking, second in hitting percentage and ranked among the top 10 in kills.

Stutsman became only the fourth Lady Topper to be named an All-American after being awarded honorable mention All-America honors by the AVCA following the 2010 season. Stutsman was also named to the first team All-South Region team and All-Sun Belt Conference second team while earning both SBC and South Region Freshman of the Year honors. Stutsman set her team to a .294 hitting percentage while ranked sixth in the country. She collected 1,289 assists for an average of 10.65 per set, ranking third in the conference and 52nd in the nation in assists per set.

In addition to Szivos, Middle Tennessee also placed Ashley Adams on the preseason team. After injury sidelined Alyssa Wistrick, Adams ascended from mostly playing in a reserve role to First Team All-Sun Belt honors. The junior tallied 297 kills in just 97 sets to end the season second on the team with a 3.06 per set average.

FIU also had two players on the team with senior Andrea Lakovic and junior Jovana Bjelica.

Lakovic received First Team All-Sun Belt Conference honors in 2010 after contributing team-leading marks of 346 kills and 99 blocks and chipping in with 20 service aces. The middle blocker’s team-high hitting percentage of .351 ranks first all-time in the FIU single-season rally-scoring era record books.

Bjelica makes her second consecutive preseason all-conference team this season. The outside hitter contributed 149 kills, 85 digs, 12 blocks, nine assists and six service aces across just 31 sets played. Her kills per set mark of 4.81 ranks fourth for a single-season in the FIU rally-scoring era record books. In 2009, she was named Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year, Second Team All-SBC, AVCA All-South Region and AVCA All-America.

Rounding out the team is Arkansas State’s Cayla Fielder, who also was on the preseason team in 2010. Fielder led the Red Wolves with 332 kills, leaving her just four shy of breaking 1,000 for her career. The senior’s 3.73 kills per set averaged landed second in the Sun Belt Conference to end 2010.

Preseason Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Poll

1. Middle Tennessee - 66 points (6 first place votes)
1. Western Kentucky - 66 points (6 first place votes)
3. FIU - 48 points
4. South Alabama- 28 points
5. Florida Atlantic- 26 points
6. Troy- 18 points

1. North Texas - 65 points (7 first place votes)
2. Arkansas State - 60 points (4 first place votes)
3. Denver - 52 points (1 first place vote)
4. Louisiana - 34 points
5. UALR - 29 points
6. Louisiana-Monroe- 12 points

2011 Preseason All-Sun Belt Conference Volleyball Team
Cayla Fielder, Arkansas State
Jovana Bjelica, FIU
Andrea Lakovic, FIU
Ashley Adams, Middle Tennessee
Maria Szivos, Middle Tennessee
Tiffany Elmore, WKU
Jordyn Skinner, WKU
Melanie Stutsman, WKU

Preseason Player of the Year: Maria Szivos, Middle Tennessee
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Megan Baska, Arkansas State

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