Fifth-Ranked UCLA Opens 2007 Season in Nebraska at AVCA College Volleyball Showcase

Aug. 20, 2007

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#5 UCLA (33-4) vs. #21 Utah (28-4)
Friday, Aug. 24
Omaha, Neb.
Qwest Center
4 p.m. PT

#5 UCLA (33-4) vs. #1 Nebraska (33-1) or Tennessee (19-12)
Saturday, Aug. 25
Omaha, Neb.
Qwest Center
4 or 6:30 p.m. PT

The fifth-ranked UCLA women's volleyball team opens their 2007 campaign in the same spot their 2006 season came to a tumultuous end, in the Qwest Center in Omaha, Neb. at the AVCA College Volleyball Showcase. The Bruins will first face #21 Utah on Friday at 4 p.m. PT before advancing to Saturday's action, taking on #1 Nebraska or Tennessee at either 4 or 6:30 p.m. PT. Friday's contests, as well as Saturday's AVCA College Volleyball Showcase championship match will both be aired live on CSTV.

While it has been more than eight months since the Bruins last took the court, one opponent for certain and another possible foe will feature re-matches against two teams UCLA faced on its 2006 postseason run. On Friday, 21st-ranked Utah looks to get revenge on UCLA after the Bruins bounced the Utes from the NCAA Tournament in the second round a year ago. Utah was in all three games in the matchup at Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 2, but UCLA came away with a 30-24, 30-27, 30-26 victory to advance to the regional semifinals and send the Utes home. Another possible tournament re-match is set-up for Saturday with a potential top-five matchup between the Bruins and the defending national champions and top-ranked Nebraska, this time with UCLA looking to avenge a tournament loss. In the national semifinals a year ago on the same court they may be playing each other on Saturday, UCLA won the first game, but dropped the final three to fall to the Huskers 30-23, 28-30, 23-30, 28-30.

This will be the second time UCLA has been invited to play in the AVCA College Volleyball Showcase. In 2000, the Bruins staged a dramatic five-game victory over defending national champion Penn State (8-15, 15-12, 15-2, 13-15, 15-12) in the semifinals after the Nittany Lions bounced UCLA in the regional semifinals a year prior, but could not get past Colorado State (8-15, 15-8, 12-15, 15-11, 15-17) in the championship match, falling in five games. Nebraska is in its sixth appearance at the Showcase, winning the title in 2001 and 2005 and finishing runner-up in 1995 and 1996. It will also be the fourth time Nebraska has served as host of the tournament, also hosting in Lincoln in 1995 and 1999 and in Omaha in 2005. Utah and Tennessee are each making its first appearances in the Showcase.

UCLA has made six trips to Nebraska since 1991 and holds a 7-5 record in the Cornhusker state. All but one of the matches were played in Lincoln, with last year's national semifinal the first time the Bruins played in Omaha. UCLA has dropped the last three contests in the state of Nebraska, all in the postseason.

Utah returns 10 letterwinners and five starters from last year's team that went 28-4 and ran the table in the Mountain West Conference with a 16-0 record. The Utes defeated Michigan State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Pauley Pavilion last year before falling to UCLA. Utah, selected third in the MWC preseason coaches poll, is led by senior outside hitter/middle blocker Whitney Webb, who averaged 3.13 kills, 2.67 digs and 1.29 blocks per game in earning AVCA third-team All-American honors. Senior Emillie Toone (2.43 kpg, 1.93 bpg) and junior Lori Baird (2.44 kpg, 1.34 bpg) also key the Utes' attack for head coach Beth Launiere, who in 17 previous seasons has a 350-191 record. UCLA leads the all-time series with Utah 7-1, including the 2006 victory in the NCAA Tournament. The Bruins won the first six in the series before the Utes claimed a five-set win in Salt Lake City on Sept. 17, 2004. UCLA is 5-0 all-time on neutral courts against the Utes.

Utah's second-year assistant coach Burt Fuller was a long-time assistant for UCLA. In seven seasons in Westwood (1994-2000), Fuller helped the Bruins to six NCAA Tournament appearances and a runner-up finish in 1994.

Nebraska claimed its third national championship in 2006, defeating Stanford in the title match to finish the year with a 33-1 record. The Huskers' lone loss came in Big 12 play, but did not prevent them from winning the conference title. The top-ranked Huskers return six starters to this year's team and are led by All-American and Honda Award winner Sarah Pavan. The senior averaged 5.10 kills and 1.00 blocks per game last season. Nebraska has four more All-Americans on the roster in senior Tracy Stalls, junior Jordan Larson, sophomore Rachel Holloway and redshirt senior Christina Houghtelling, who was the 2005 AVCA Player of the year, but missed last season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Eighth-year head coach John Cook has a 220-15 record at Nebraska and a 371-87 career mark in 13 seasons. The Huskers lead the all-time series with the Bruins 8-3 and have won two straight, including the 2006 national semifinal victory. UCLA's last victory against the Huskers came in Lincoln on Dec. 12, 2003, as the Bruins bounced Nebraska in the NCAA regional semifinals in four games. The last three meetings between the Bruins and the Huskers have come in the postseason, along with five of the 11 all-time matches, with Nebraska holding a 4-1 edge.

Tennessee brings back three starters and 12 letterwinners from a 2006 squad that went 19-12 and finished third in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, the same position it was picked to finish in the SEC preseason poll. The Lady Vols fell to Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Leading the way for Tennessee is senior Yuliya Stoyanova, who averaged 4.08 kills and 2.76 digs per game in her junior season. A pair of juniors in Mindy Flynn (2.08 kpg) and Milan Clarke (1.98 kpg) also key the Lady Vols' attack. Rob Patrick is in his 11th-year as the head coach at Tennessee, sporting a 210-107 record. UCLA has never faced Tennessee, but have played seven other teams from the SEC. The Bruins hold a 19-3 record against Tennessee's conference brethren, including a 6-0 mark against LSU, a 4-0 record against Georgia and a 3-3 record against Florida. UCLA has beaten Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi one each. The Bruins have only faced two teams from the state of Tennessee, beating Memphis in 1983 and Tennessee Tech in 2006.

The UCLA women's volleyball team was picked third in the Pac-10 Preseason Coaches Poll, as announced by the conference on Aug. 2. The Bruins received one first-place vote and 75 points.Defending Pac-10 champion and national finalist Stanford was tabbed first, picking up eight first-place votes and 89 points. USC was two points ahead of the Bruins with 77 points and the other first-place vote. Rounding out the poll were Washington, California, Arizona, Oregon, Arizona State, Oregon State and Washington State.

Achieving their first 30-win season and trip to the NCAA Final Four since 1994, the 2006 UCLA women's volleyball season was an exciting one from start to finish. Beginning the year with a 20-match win streak and sweeping through the competition during the first four rounds of the postseason, the Bruins had their sights set on a seventh national championship at the Final Four in Omaha, Neb. While the ending to the season was a tumultuous one with a four-game loss to eventual national champion Nebraska, the Bruins hope the 2006 campaign will be a springboard for success in 2007.

A possible pre-cursor to UCLA's success this season came during spring play when the Bruins won the USA Volleyball Adult Open Championships in Austin, Tex. Among the teams UCLA defeated were the University of Washington's club team and a collegiate all-star training squad.

'It is a great springboard for us going into the season,' head coach Andy Banachowski said. 'Collegiate competition is a different ballgame, but the fact that we were able to take this team out there and play as well as we did and capture the championship has got to give the players a lot of confidence. They are tough-minded and competitive and those are great traits to take us into the season.'

'If you want to build a team around anybody, it is a setter, and we have the best in the country,' Banachowski said of All-American setter Nellie Spicer. Coming back for her junior campaign at Westwood, Spicer earned AVCA and Volleyball Magazine All-American honors in her sophomore season after finishing seventh in the nation in assists. She was a constant force at the setter position as the only Bruin to start all 37 matches. Spicer missed just two games all season and had 15 matches with at least 50 assists, including four with at least 60.

Backing up Spicer at the setter position will be junior Nikki Jagd and freshmen Jazmin Machado (Encinitas, CA/La Costa Canyon HS) and Stephanie Nucci (Gilbert, AZ/Gilbert HS).

'Nikki, Jazmin and Stephanie are all going to get their time,' Banachowski said. 'You need strong support all the way at every position. Nikki has a year of experience here and will be used this season. Jazmin and Stephanie will need some time to learn the system, but they are highly-skilled and driven players.'

Middle Blockers
The middle appears to be the spot in which the Bruins must shore up after losing the services of All-American Nana Meriwether. The senior last season led the country in hitting percentage and blocks per game, becoming the first player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in two statistical categories.

'Her net play is going to be hard to replace,' Banachowski said. 'That will be our biggest task, to get production from our middles, comparable to what we were able to do last season.'

Returning in the middle is senior Rachell Johnson, who had a successful junior campaign after finish second to Meriwether in blocks per game and tying for the team lead in aces. Her blocks total also placed her 10th in the Pac-10, while her aces per game average put her seventh in the conference.

'Rachell can be an outside hitter, but we are better when she is in the middle. She will line up there a lot, but she can also take some swings on the outside.'

Also coming back at the middle blocker spot are senior Meghan Schoen and junior Elise Carstensen, who both had great tournaments at the USAVB Adult Open.

'Meghan has great experience and Elise with the great arm swing she has are both very excellent at hitting behind the setter, which will give us some great opportunities to spread the offense around,' Banachowski said. 'We didn't really use that middle connection enough through the spring, so that is something that we are going to have to develop more.'

Freshman Katie Mills (Aurora, CO/Grandview HS) may also see time at the middle blocker position, although her development will be delayed a bit with a back injury.

Outside Hitters
Along with Meriwether, another key loss from last year's squad is that of Katie Carter, who also earned All-American honors from the AVCA and Volleyball Magazine. 'The best thing about Katie is how clutch she was,' Banachowski said. 'But we have more candidates to replace her at outside hitter than we do in replacing Nana in the middle.'

Among those candidates are a pair of returners in juniors Ali Daley and Kaitlin Sather. 'Both Ali and Kaitlin had great tournaments (USAVB Adult Open) and grew so much in their positions. We are going to be very deep at the outside hitter spot.'

Daley was fourth on the team with 2.92 kills per game and fifth in digs at 2.29, posting six double-doubles and 15 double-figure kills matches. Sather was equally as good, finishing third at 2.95 kills per game with 18 double-figure kills contests and four double-doubles.

In addition to Daley and Sather, the Bruins return sophomore Emily Clements and bring in two freshmen and a junior transfer. Laura Holloway (Barrington, IL/Barrington HS) joins the Bruins after two years at Penn State. A high school teammate of Spicer, Banachowski hopes that familiarity will help Holloway adjust to her new surroundings.

'Laura is going to give us some great depth coming from another high-caliber program. We hope she will be able to work into our system well.'

Dicey McGraw (Laguna Niguel, CA/Santa Margarita HS) and Juliane Piggott (Newport Beach, CA/Corona Del Mar HS) add to the outstanding freshmen class.

'They have both played a lot of high-level volleyball,' Banachowski said. 'Juliane has good size and Dicey has good hops and both are going to be able to learn and develop in our system.'

Defensive Specialist/Libero
A position which was up in the air for most of last season, the libero duties finally fell to graduated senior Colby Lyman towards the end of the season, who Banachowski says will be missed.

'In losing Colby, we lose her volleyball skills but also her air of confidence on the court, which will take time for us to replace.'

Banachowski will look toward juniors Jessica Fine and Jade Machado to replace Lyman. Fine played sparingly last year, while Machado played in all 37 matches, averaging 1.81 digs per game.

'Jessica and Jade are both capable of taking that role (as defensive specialist and/or libero) and we can certainly use them both game by game. They are both going to see a lot of playing time. They are both very good and even, so it remains to be seen if one of them will clearly take the lead over the other. If it does happen, it may not happen until the middle of the season.' Sophomore Diana Douglas also will be in the mix at the defensive specialist position.

The Schedule
The 2007 campaign begins where the 2006 season came to an end in Omaha, Neb. UCLA will take part in the prestigious AVCA Showcase, where they will face a Utah team it defeated in the second round of last year's NCAA Tournament. Looming next is a potential re-match with the Nebraska squad that ended the Bruins' tournament run last year.

'It is great that we were invited to play in the Showcase. It is exciting to think about going back to Nebraska and playing in front of crowds that we finished playing in front of at the end of last season. Also in the tournament is Tennessee, another squad which made the postseason in '06.

The schedule doesn't get any lighter in terms of playoff-caliber teams, as UCLA takes on postseason squads Louisville and Hawai'i at the Hawaiian Airlines Wahine Volleyball Classic (Aug. 31-Sept. 3) and Sweet 16 team San Diego at the USD Tournament on Sept. 15 before finally hitting the Pauley Pavilion court for home matches.

'It has been a good thing for us to spend so much time on the road early in the season,' Banachowski said. 'We have to do it in the postseason and we are very used to packing up and going. It makes you tougher when you have to play in different and unfriendlyenvironments.'

The tough Pac-10 Conference slate begins at home on Sept. 20 and 21 against Arizona and Arizona State. Highlights of the league schedule include television contests at Washington (Oct. 18) and USC (Nov. 2) and a home TV match against Stanford (Oct. 26). UCLA will also have its annual showdown with non-conference foe Pepperdine in Malibu on Nov. 20.

'It is good for us to play some good competition early on, as it allows us to pinpoint our weaknesses. It also gets us ready for the tough Pac-10 schedule, which gets us ready for the postseason.'

The postseason begins with the first and second rounds to be played at campus sites from Nov. 29 to Dec. 2. NCAA Regional play runs from Dec. 7-9, while the NCAA Final Four takes place on Dec. 13 and 15 in Sacramento, Calif.

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