It is often said that a college athlete makes the most significant improvement between his or her first and second years. If the same theory applies to an entire program, second-year head coach Kent Miller's 2012 Saint Louis University Billikens have ample reason to be optimistic following an encouraging showing in Miller's debut campaign.

The 2011 Billikens forged a 15-13 overall record while playing a difficult schedule, and their 10-5 league mark was good for third place in a continually improving Atlantic 10 Conference. Those accomplishments have Miller and his squad of 10 returning players and four freshmen ready to reach for greater heights this year.

"We're excited about the start of the season," Miller said. "We're fortunate to have brought back a team of dedicated, hard-working student-athletes who do a great job of playing together. We also brought in four outstanding freshmen who fit very well into the culture of this team. The expectations are to compete at a high level and be great representatives of Saint Louis University.

"The team and coaching staff were pleased with last year's success, and we're excited about the experience our players gained," Miller said. "We've come back determined to build on the foundation of that first season, both competitively and in the way we work together and play hard. The team is competitively balanced and a little deeper than it was last year."

Saint Louis is fortunate to have the services of senior setter Cassie Clarke for one more year. Clarke, who transferred to SLU from Arkansas prior to the 2011 season, displayed all-around prowess on the floor in her first year with the Billikens. She averaged 9.41 assists, 2.39 digs and 0.51 blocks per set while also contributing 84 kills and 23 service aces.

Freshman Meredith Boe will be Clarke's backup. Boe set a Bloomington (Ill.) Central Catholic record for assists last year while helping the Saints go 14-0 in the Cornbelt Conference.

"In Cassie Clarke, we return a senior setter who has made huge strides during the short time she's been in our program," Miller said. "Meredith is an outstanding freshman setter who definitely has the ability to contribute immediately."

Miller strongly emphasizes defense, and he has an abundance of defensive specialists who are ready and able to do their part to carry on the Bills' tradition of excellence in this vital area.

"A hallmark of our team is its ability to play defense," Miller said. "We have five defenders on our roster, and we're excited about their ability to keep the ball off the floor and provide a competitive and emotional lift."

The back-row quintet consists of senior Andrea Bolt, juniors Grace Bonoma and Erin Klostermann (a transfer from Missouri-St. Louis prior to last season), redshirt freshman Erin Nakatsuka and freshman Anna Church.

Bolt averaged 2.02 digs per set and chipped in 29 service aces in 2011, while Bonoma led the Billikens in digs (289) and digs per set (2.75) and collected 24 aces.

"Andrea had a great season last year, and we expect more of the same from her," Miller said. "She has a tough serve and a great defensive attitude. Grace comes back from a season in which she handled a lot of responsibility on the court and was a big factor in our success.

"Erin Klostermann and Erin Nakatsuka made tremendous strides during their first year, and we expect them to have an impact on the court this season," Miller said. "Anna played on four state championship teams at Bishop Miege High School in the Kansas City area and is quite a competitor. She brings a fiery spirit to the floor."

Two veterans and a newcomer make up SLU's middle-blocker corps. Seniors Carly Marcum and Carly Schumacher are joined by freshman Megan Gilbert.

Marcum led the Billikens in blocks (116) and blocks per set (1.10) last year while also chalking up 1.97 kills per set. Schumacher was second on the squad in blocks (86) and blocks per set (1.06). Gilbert garnered All-State honors four consecutive years and helped Tripoli (Iowa) High School capture four straight state titles.

"Carly Marcum and Carly Schumacher had solid performances as blockers a year ago, and they made significant offensive improvement during the offseason," Miller said. "Megan is a talented all-around player who can play a number of positions and is very effective as an attacker and as a blocker."

Miller welcomes back three outside hitters in senior Aleksandra "Ola" Niemiec, redshirt sophomore Lauren Baumet and redshirt freshman Nicole Sniffen. Freshman Lindsey Dinkelacker comes aboard after collecting All-State honors twice at Mother of Mercy High School in Cincinnati.

Niemiec became a Billiken last year after transferring from Jefferson College and turned in a 1.30 kills-per-set average in a backup role. Baumet entered the starting lineup during the latter part of the 2011 season and also registered 1.30 kills per set.

"Ola has improved over the past year as she has become more integrated into our program," Miller said. "We expect her all-around play to be a big factor in helping us. Lauren started the last part of 2011 due to an injury to a teammate, and we were encouraged by her contributions during that time. She's expected to make an impact right away this season.

"Nicole is healthy after redshirting last year because of an injury," Miller said. "She has shown real promise in the practice gym, and we're excited to have her at 100 percent. Lindsey was a great all-around player in high school and club volleyball. She brings a good competitive spirit as well as a solid level of play in all the skills on the outside."

The Billikens' schedule is a 30-match slate that includes two home tournaments, 15 home contests in all and matches against 2011 NCAA Tournament qualifiers Nebraska, Western Michigan, Delaware and Dayton (twice).

Saint Louis opens the season at the Nebraska Classic. The Bills take on the defending Big Ten champion Cornhuskers as well as Notre Dame, last season's Big East tournament runner-up.

Following the home opener against Santa Clara, SLU will host the Active Ankle Challenge and the Marcia E. Hamilton Classic on consecutive weekends. Valparaiso, Southern Illinois and South Alabama are on the Active Ankle slate, while the Billikens will take on Evansville, Southeast Missouri State and South Florida in the Marcia E. Hamilton event. A midweek match at Bradley is slotted between the tournaments.

The Billikens' final tournament is the Northwestern Wildcat Classic, where they will be challenged by Western Michigan, Northwestern and Delaware.

"Once again we have a very tough non-conference schedule that will help us prepare to go after the A-10 championship," Miller said. "We open against some of the best teams in the country. Playing Nebraska in Lincoln will be quite a treat for our team, and we're looking forward to having a competitive match against them and Notre Dame.

"We added a number of home matches that will give the team plenty of opportunities to play in front of our home crowd," Miller said. "Former national semifinalist Santa Clara comes to town, and we're hosting two tournaments. The tournament at Northwestern gives us a chance for some high-level competition against another Big Ten team as well as two NCAA qualifiers."

SLU, which was tabbed to finish third in the A-10 in the preseason coaches' poll, will be tested right away when it opens league play at No. 2 pick Xavier and conference favorite Dayton. Dayton and Xavier finished 1-2 in the regular-season standings and at the A-10 Championship a season ago.

The Bills play their next three conference tilts at home, entertaining Duquesne, George Washington and new A-10 member Butler. Dayton, Xavier, Temple and La Salle also appear on the home agenda. SLU travels to A-10 newcomer VCU (the 2011 Colonial Athletic Association tournament runner-up), Charlotte, Rhode Island, Fordham and Butler.

Saint Louis breaks from A-10 action with October non-conference matches against Western Illinois (home), Eastern Illinois and Kansas. The Kansas match follows the A-10 Championship, which will be played in Pittsburgh.

"We expect the A-10 to be better this year," Miller said. "Not only have all the teams improved over last year, but the addition of Butler and VCU has made our conference even tougher. We're pleased to be playing home-and-home series against Xavier and Dayton again this season and are looking forward to continuing those rivalries.

"Our last match prior to the NCAA Tournament is against Kansas," Miller said. "We played them last year and had a good, competitive match, so we're enthusiastic about having another chance to get a win against them."

The Billikens again are poised to be contenders in the A-10. Challenges await at every turn, but Miller and his troops are ready to meet them head-on.

"We're excited to have been picked third in the A-10 coaches' poll," Miller said. "The conference continues to improve. We expect every match to be a battle as they proved to be last year, and we know it will take everything we have to meet that third-place expectation or finish higher."