When the Claflin University volleyball team begins its 2017 season, there will be a new face of leadership on the sidelines.

The team will be under the direction of Mary Rotimi, who will lead players on their journey to “Rise Above” their competition.

Rotimi will officially make her head coaching debut Friday (Sept. 1) in Raleigh, N.C. when the Lady Panthers take on Shaw University of the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (CIAA). The contest will be the first of 11 straight road matches.

Claflin will play a 25-game schedule, highlighted by the annual Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference Cross-Over Tournament Sept. 21-23. The Lady Panthers will play six matches against West Division members of the conference over the three-day period.

Rotimi and her team will make their first home appearance of the season on Sept. 27 against North Greenville University at the Tullis Arena. Claflin has only eight home matches.

The SIAC tournament is slated for Nov. 13-18 in Birmingham. Ala.

“With this being my first season at Claflin, I’m excited and looking forward to the challenge,” Rotimi said.

“The road games will give us an opportunity to work out the kinks before opening at home,” Rotimi said. “Winning on the road makes a statement to your opponents. It shows you’re not affair of playing in a tough environment with a noise crowd. If we can be successful on the road, winning at home should come a little easier.”

Rotimi takes over a Claflin program rich in tradition, having chalked up 176 victories since joining the NCAA Division II and the SIAC in 2008. The most impressive mark during that stretch was a 29-9 record in 2011.

As for the SIAC, the Lady Panthers claimed the tournament championship in 2014, along with the conference’s automatic berth into the NCAA Division II National Tournament. Claflin has played for the SIAC championship on three other occasions while collecting four East Division titles.

Over the last six seasons, the Lady Panthers have compiled a 78-20 record against SIAC opponents.

“This program has a lot of tradition,” Rotimi said. “My goal is to continue the great winning tradition at Claflin. I’m excited for the opportunity and will work extremely hard to continue that success.”

Rotimi inherits nine players, including four starters, from last year’s 19-8 team. The Lady Panthers racked up their fourth straight divisional title with a 14-3 league record.

Claflin ended the season, losing to Kentucky State University in the SIAC championship match.

The Lady Panthers will open the season as the favorites to capture the East Division title.

“I feel we have a pretty good team,” Rotimi said. “I think our players have the mindset, the determination and the willingness to work hard to be successful. From a coaching standpoint, my job is providing the leadership and coaching to help our players reach their goal, which is the SIAC championship.

“The key for our players lies in trust and improving from one match to the next. They must trust their teammates on the floor, trust the coaches, improve on their craft (volleyball) and stay focused. I think those things, along with being discipline on the court, will go a long way in this team being successful.”

The Lady Panthers will be led by junior middle hitter Jordan Wallace, the SIAC preseason Defensive Player of the Year and a first-team selection.

Last season, Wallace was named SIAC Defensive Player of the Year, after leading the league in blocks with 96. She also had 182 kills and a .301 hitting percentage, both third best in the conference.

Jordan also finished the season with five or more blocks on 10 occasions and 64 in league matches.

Another key component for Claflin will be senior right side hitter Ashleigh Green, an SIAC preseason second-team selection. Green recorded 165 kills and 31 total blocks.

Rounding out the returning starters are junior libero Jhi Piper-Murles, who recorded 303 digs and 30 services aces; and junior Jamie Dobson, who produced 106 kills and 54 total blocks.

Other players with experience include: senior Alexcia Herring (defensive specialist); juniors Kiana Ware (defensive specialist), and Gabrielle Williams (right side hitter/setter); along with red-shirt sophomore Courtney Taylor (right side hitter/outside hitter), who returns to the lineup after missing all of last season due to injury.

The list of newcomers will be graduate transfer Diara Lewis (outside hitter), junior transfer Jewel Moody (middle blocker), and freshmen Jala Roberts (outside hitter) and Chania Rispress (setter).