Volleyball Opens New Era In 2001

Aug. 17, 2001

SEATTLE - With a new coaching staff, five of six starters returning, a chance to move back into the newly renovated Bank of America Arena and new set of rules thrown into the mix, the 2001 Washington volleyball team has all the tools necessary to compete with the nation's elite.

'We're going be a good team, and I've always said we're going to be playing our best volleyball in November - that's a given,' said first-year head coach Jim McLaughlin. 'Whether we're good enough to win the Pac-10, I don't know, but that's the end we're working toward.

'What I do know and what I can control, is how much improvement we make and how good of a volleyball team we can be.'

McLaughlin became the seventh head coach in school history on August 1, 2001, following the retirement of Bill Neville, who coached the Huskies for the last decade (1991-2000).

McLaughlin is fresh off a four-year stint at Kansas State, where he led the Wildcats to four consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, as well as a trip to the Sweet 16 a year ago. He also helped the USC men's team to the 1990 NCAA title and brings 11 years of head coaching experience with him to the Seattle campus.

With such a high level of success already on his resume, it's no wonder that McLaughlin has even higher goals for the volleyball program at Washington.

'I believe that we can have a top 10 team at the University of Washington,' McLaughlin said. 'We have the resources, the facilities and the academic reputation. We just have to put the things in place that need to be in place to develop a volleyball team.'

This year's Washington volleyball squad includes a 14-player roster with six upperclassmen and seven players who are six-feet and taller. Leading the way are the team's three seniors, Britni Churnside, Allison Richardson and Lisa Underhill, who have all been integral parts of the UW program.

Underhill, now entering her fifth season at Washington, boasts outstanding hitting and blocking skills and provides the team with quiet leadership out of the middle.

Churnside and Richardson, meanwhile, are two of the team's best defensive players and primary passers, while adding a more vocal presence on the court. Both, however, may see new roles in 2001, as Churnside will compete for the starting setter role, and Richardson will be used more exclusively out of the middle after spending the majority of time on the outside her previous three seasons.

Besides the three seniors, two other starters return in junior outside/center blocker Paige Benjamin and junior setter Gretchen Maurer, while defensive specialists junior Elissa Ross and sophomore Libba Lawrence each saw significant starting time in 2000.

One of the biggest changes for the Huskies this season will actually be in the game itself, as a number of new rules, such as the let serve and the international pursuit rule, in addition to a new rally-scoring format, will go into effect in 2001.

'As far as the standards of the game (hitting efficiency, your ability to score points and your sideout game), it's not going to change those standards - I guarantee it,' McLaughlin said. 'Is it going to change everything in our training? No way. We're going to be training the same way, but we're just going to play shorter games.'

The following is a position-by-position breakdown of the 2001 Huskies.

One of the biggest challenges for this year's UW volleyball team will be the move away from the two-setter system. Junior Gretchen Maurer and Britni Churnside, who shared the setting position for most of their previous two seasons together at Washington, will compete for the starting role.

Maurer's height at the net along with her pure athleticism, has enabled her to be an effective hitter on the outside, as well as one of the team's top jump servers. In 2000, Maurer averaged 2.03 kills per game and only 3.91 assists per game, but led the team in aces with 29.

Churnside has logged 1,890 career assists in her first three seasons, which ranks her sixth in Washington history. She led the team in assists in 2000, averaging 9.49 assists per game.

Churnside also is one of the team's best defensive players. She ranked first on the team in digs per game with a 2.74 average, while reaching double-digits in digs 16 times in 2000. This spring, she worked particularily hard on her back row skills with impressive results.

Additionally, she was the only UW player to have more service aces (19) than errors (13), including a career-best four in the team's win over Oregon State.

Both Maurer and Churnside were fixtures in the Husky lineup a year ago, missing a combined four of the team's 96 games.

One of the team's strongest position this year will once again be in the middle. Seniors Lisa Underhill and Allison Richardson give the Huskies a great combination of size, quickness and game savvy, but at the same time, both bring different strengths to the table.

Richardson played her first two and a half seasons at the outside hitter position, before moving to the middle in late October last year. During that 10-match span, she averaged 4.03 kills per game on .317 hitting with 2.61 digs per game and 1.06 blocks per game.

Underhill returns to the middle for the fourth straight season. A year ago, she led the team in kills per game (3.66), hitting percentage (.321) and blocks per game (1.08), while also ranking among the Pac-10 Conference leaders in all three categories. This spring, Underhill made dramatic improvements on her footwork at the net and will continue to be one of the Huskies biggest and most consistent threats on offense.

Besides Underhill and Richardson, sophomore Egan Metcalf, red-shirt freshman Alexis McDonald and newcomer Patricia DeCiman could all see playing time at the center blocker spot.

At 6-2, Metcalf, who played 19 matches at the center blocker spot in 2000, can form an intimidating block at the net, but needs more experience offensively after logging just 13 kills on 37 attempts in her first season at the UW.

McDonald brings great leaping ability as well as good instincts to the ball, while DeCiman, at 6-1, can cover a lot of area around the net. DeCiman, a native of Regina, Saskatchewan, will get a late start in her first season at Washington after representing Saskatchewan at the Canada Games in mid-August.

A big key to the Huskies' success in 2001 will be the emergence of the team's outside hitters. Junior Paige Benjamin, who played in the middle as a freshman and for half of her sophomore season, will look to secure one of the starting spots on the outside. A year ago, she was first on the team in hitting attempts (742), second in blocks per game (0.82) and third in kills per game (3.12). This year's team captain also brings great leaping ability, strong blocking skills, as well as an ability to adapt and make the difficult shot.

Joining Benjamin on the outside will be returnees, sophomore Kara Bjorklund and red-shirt freshman Diane Halvarson.

Bjorklund, who will look to recover from off-season foot surgery, started in 10 matches in her first year as a Husky, averaging 1.44 kills per game and 0.73 blocks a game, primarily on the right side. Bjorklund gives the UW a solid blocker and jumper and will look to see more of a role offensively.

Halvarson, meanwhile, was the state of Washington's Gatorade Player of the Year coming out of high school in 2000. With one full season of training under her belt, Halvarson is a versatile player who handles the ball well.

The Huskies' two newcomers on the outside are freshmen Vanessa Gilliam and Kaitlin Leck. Gilliam made a name for herself in the Northern California prep arena as a big left-side hitter, who can put balls away, as well as jump serve and pass. Leck, a 6-1 left-hander, brings great back row and passing skills and can play on either the right or left side.

Two seasoned veterans will give the Huskies a solid corps of defensive specialists in 2001. Sophomore Libba Lawrence and junior Elissa Ross have both seen significant playing time in the back row.

Lawrence was one of only five UW players and the only freshman to play in all 27 matches. She averaged just 1.32 digs per game, but had only 11 reception errors. Lawrence also unveiled another threat during a mid-season match with Oregon, a jump serve that fell to the floor three times against the Ducks.

Ross, meanwhile, battled injuries through most of her sophomore campaign, but still managed to play in 23 matches, logging 101 digs and eight aces.

As a freshman in 1999, Ross played in 87 of the team's 90 games and averaged 1.76 digs per game.

With the team's return to Bank of America Arena for home matches, the Huskies also will again play host to a tournament. This year's field includes volleyball powers Brigham Young and Texas, along with Purdue, a member of the Big Ten Conference.

BYU returns four of its six starters from a team which went 26-7 and advanced to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. Texas, meanwhile, suffered its first losing season in program history in 2000, but will be looking to bounce back under first-year head coach Jerritt Elliott, who helped USC to the national semi-finals.

'I think it's a good schedule,' McLaughlin said. 'We're opening up with BYU, a top 10 team. We're going to jump right into the fire.

'Then we play a Big Ten team in Purdue, which is a program that is improving, and we finish play with a traditional power, Texas. The first three matches are big, and we will definitely get a feeling of where we're at.'

Following the three home matches, the Huskies hit the road for Colorado, beginning with a non-conference match-up with Denver (Sept. 4) and finishing with a four-team tournament at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Sept. 7-8.

A mid-week match at Gonzaga (Sept. 12), precedes the opening of the team's 2001 Pac-10 season, which starts September 14, at rival Washington State, with the Huskies looking to end a four-match losing skid to the Cougars.

Two home non-conference matches with Idaho (Sept. 24) and Portland (Oct. 16) mix with the rest of the team's conference schedule, which concludes in Seattle with a three-date home stand with Arizona (Nov. 9), Arizona State (Nov. 10) and Washington State (Nov. 16).

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