The Measure of Success - 2002 UW Volleyball Season Preview

Aug. 12, 2002

It may be hard for an outsider to believe, but just one year ago, with only one week before the start of fall camp, Jim McLaughlin was hired as the seventh head coach in Washington volleyball history.

Why this fact is so important for people to understand is, because the Huskies, despite having to learn a brand new system and get used to an entire new game, arena and coaching staff, still managed to win 11 matches in 2001, more than any UW squad since 1997.

'We made progress,' second-year head coach McLaughlin said. 'It was a tough year, and I think we understand that we have a lot of work to do. I give the players credit, though, because they had to learn new systems in a very short period of time.'

With a year under their belts, the UW players and coaching staff have made huge steps in improving the program, with a primary goal of raising the team's level of play on a daily basis.

'As it is every year, our goal at Washington is to be better than last year,' McLaughlin said. 'Ultimately, we would like to make a little progress every day. This past spring was an important one for us, and I believe we made good progress, however, we have a ways to go. August will be important for this team.'

This year's team will be led by a trio of seniors, Paige Benjamin, Gretchen Maurer and Elissa Ross, all of whom will play a key role in different positions around the court. Seven returnees with varying experience and strengths will support the three seniors, and the 2002 season also welcomes eight newcomers for the 18-player roster.

While the team will grow in shear numbers from a year ago, each of its members will still be subject to an ever increasing level of expectation, which will be measured on a daily basis as each competes for playing time.

'We measure everything we do,' McLaughlin said. 'We've set standards and measure our progress. What I can tell you at this point in time is that we're playing at a higher standard then we were at the beginning of the spring season. We plan on playing at an even higher standard next season ... There's indications that we're a better team.'

The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2002 Huskies.

SETTERS

Maurer is expected to return to her starting position at setter for the second straight year after sharing the duties her freshman and sophomore seasons. Last year, she ranked fourth in the Pac-10 in assists per game with a 12.53 mark overall. Maurer, an outstanding athlete, boasts great all-around skills with ability to jump serve and block. She will continue to work on adding to the team's offense as well as her floor defense.

'Gretchen had the spring that we needed her to have,' McLaughlin said. 'If she pushes herself this summer and comes in this fall in great physical condition, she can be one of the top setters in the country. She's beginning to understand the demands of our system at a high level and now has to recognize situations. August will be an important time for her.'

Maurer will be challenged by 6-1 freshman Chelsey Garrett, who earned preseason All-America honors prior to her senior year at Blue Valley North High School. Garrett has made a name for herself with her work ethic and on-court leadership.

'This will be the second year that (Gretchen) will the full time setter, but she's going to have some good competition in Chelsey Garrett,' McLaughlin said. 'Chelsey will be on her heels and she will fight and make her better.

'Chelsey's a physical athlete and has a heart that's pounding. She wants it pretty bad. As she matures and understands what we need done at the position, I think her learning curve will be pretty steep.'

OUTSIDE HITTERS

By far the deepest position on the Huskies' roster, the UW coaching staff will have a tough time deciding which weapon to turn to on the outside. Eight players will vie for positions and starting time, all with varying strengths and experience.

The most experienced of the group is Benjamin, who has played in more matches (78) than anyone on the team's 18-player roster. Benjamin is an outstanding athlete, who more than makes up for her 5-10 height with one of the team's best vertical jumps. A Pac-10 honorable mention pick a year ago, she averaged 2.90 kills per game and a .293 hitting percentage to go along with 0.91 blocks per game, second on the team.

'If Paige doesn't look sideways and compare herself to other players and pushes herself to meet her capabilities, she will become as good as she wants to be,' McLaughlin said. 'She is one of the most physical players I've ever coached, but the physical side of it is only part of the equation. Paige is learning to push herself in tough situations.'

Three other returnees - junior Kara Bjorklund and sophomores Kaitlin Leck and Vanessa Gilliam - all have seen starting time on the outside.

Leck, along with Benjamin, is one of the team's three returning starters from a year ago. In her first season at the UW, the lefty was the only freshman to play in all 27 matches, recording 2.33 kills per game and 2.23 digs per game.

Her classmate Gilliam, meanwhile, played in 18 of the first 19 matches, making 14 starts, before breaking her hand in a match at Stanford on October 19. A very physical player, Gilliam averaged 2.41 kills per game before the injury.

'Vanessa has all the talent,' McLaughlin said. 'She has the physical ability to do things at a high level and is beginning to understand the commitment involved, which is the most important aspect of becoming an elite volleyball player. I believe that when Vanessa figures that out, she can play at a high level.'

With Gilliam's injury, Bjorklund saw her role increased in 2001, appearing in each of the final 10 matches. Bjorklund played in 20 matches overall with 1.78 kills per game, including 11 kills in back-to-back matches at California and Stanford, where she hit a career-best .450.

Four newcomers will make up the other half of the team's outside hitter corps. Sophomores Danka Danicic and Sanja Tomasevic, both from Yugoslavia, add instant international experience and maturity to the group. Freshman Carolyn Farny, meanwhile, is a smooth left-handed player, who was a two-time first team all-state selection in Indiana.

'I like everything about her,' McLaughlin said about Farny. 'As far as her identity as a player, I'm not sure what that's going to be, in terms of being an attacker, a blocker, or a ball control player, but she's a physical kid. She's very intuitive at this point in her career and development.'

Freshman Jessica Veris rounds out the group of eight. Veris, who played for California prep power Mira Costa High School, brings a physical presence to the court and will look to develop into a dominating left-side hitter.

CENTER BLOCKERS

While depth is a strength at outside hitter, the Huskies' youth at the center blocker position will be an area of concern in 2002, especially with the loss of five-year team member Lisa Underhill to graduation.

Of the four center blockers, red-shirt sophomores Alexis McDonald and Egan Metcalf are the most experienced of the group, despite only playing in 24 matches combined since coming to the UW in 2000.

McDonald appeared in only seven games in her first competitive season in 2001, after battling injury, but was able to show-off her high level blocking skills in her limited playing time. McDonald, who has one of the UW's best vertical jumps, sparked the team by coming off the bench with four blocks in two games against Final Four participant Arizona.

'Alexis' identity has always been her ability to block,' McLaughlin said. 'The key to get her on the floor, is her ability to attack. What people don't know about her is that she has a very good presence in the heat of the battle. She's going to have to compete hard in practice on a day-to-day basis, and if she does that, I'm confident that she can help this team get to the (NCAA) tournament.'

Metcalf did not see action a year ago, after playing in 19 matches as a freshman in 2000. She trained particularly hard this past year on her hitting and footwork at the net to add to her already good blocking skills.

A pair of freshmen will compete for playing time at center blocker. Darla Myhre, from Victoria, B.C., hopes to follow in the long line of successful Husky players from Canada. This past summer, Myhre gained international experience as a member of the Canadian Junior National Team, which traveled to Puerto Rico for the NORCECA championships.

'Darla is fast, long and can hit the ball quick,' McLaughlin said. 'She can hit the ball high and can pass. She has a nice skill level and can block the ball. The test for her will be how fast she can learn our systems and the movements we'll ask her to perform.'

Freshman Lauren Kirwan will give the team added depth with the experience of captaining her Francis Parker High School squad to the California state quarterfinals as a senior.

LIBERO

After last year's major rule changes, the NCAA rules committee instituted another change for college women's volleyball in 2002, adding the libero position to the mix.

The new position, which reduces the number of subsititions for each game to 12, will allow teams to have more consistency, especially in the serve receive area.

At the top of the UW's list of liberos is Ross, who has played a major role in each of her three seasons at the UW. Last year, the Spokane, Wash., native played in all 27 matches and 97 games, recording a career best 1.94 digs per game. Ross, in addition to her experience, is an effective passer who worked hard this spring to improve.

'Elissa is playing at a higher level than she ever has,' McLaughlin said. 'The challenge for her is to continue to improve going into her senior year. The better you get, the tougher it is to improve, but the great players find a way. I believe Elissa can be a great passer and make this team meet the standard we've set for serve receive.'

Ross will be joined by another veteran in Libba Lawrence. Lawrence saw a limited role coming off the bench a year ago, but still managed to appear in 25 of the team's 27 matches. The 5-7 junior owns an aggressive serve and has been known to come out with a tough jump serve that keeps teams off-balance.

Red-shirt sophomore Diane Halvarson, who moves from the outside hitter position, as well as freshman Candace Lee add to the team's depth at the libero spot.

'Candace is fast, has a good platform and knows how to set the angle of her arms,' McLaughlin said. 'What I like about her most is that she has a very intense desire to play at a high level. She's got a contagious personality - people will like to be around her.'

THE SCHEDULE

The Huskies begin their 2002 campaign with three tournaments in three different states and three different time zones. The UW journey starts in Miami, Ohio, followed by trips to Hawaii and Texas.

'You have to learn how to win on the road,' McLaughlin said. 'We've always traveled a lot preseason where ever I've been, and we're doing that again. It's hard, but we need to learn how to do that and the best way is to be in those conditions.'

After three weeks on the road, the Huskies finally return home, playing host to the Oregon schools on September 19-20. The two conference matches kick-off what expects to be yet another highly competitive season in the Pac-10, which features reigning national champion Stanford.

'If you finish in the top four (of the Pac-10), you can make a run at the national title,' McLaughlin said. 'Everyone is good and there is always a good chance that a team from our conference is going to win the national title.'

The two matches with the Oregon schools are the only home dates for the Huskies in the month of September, but then almost the exact opposite will happen in October when the team is in Seattle for five of the seven matches.

November shapes up be a repeat of September, as the UW is on the road for all but two of its final 10 regular season matches, including a Thanksgiving tournament at the University of the Pacific, November 29-30.

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