2002 Volleyball Season Outlook

Aug. 15, 2002

They've gotten there. Now the Beavers want to stay there.

The Oregon State volleyball team advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 18 years last season, and the Beavers are looking for a repeat trip in 2002.

With six seniors on this year's squad, coach Nancy Somera is confident her team will be a legitimate postseason contender once again.

'The key for us is the number of seniors who have a tremendous amount of Pac-10 match experience under their belts,' the fourth-year coach said. 'The accomplishments the team achieved last year were right in line with the direction we want to move in, and the task for the upcoming season is to continue moving in that direction. We believe our seniors will be our strength.'

Those seniors include three-year starting middle blocker Michele Solomon and defensive specialist Nikki Neuburger, both of whom have played in all 87 matches the last three seasons. Solomon has played in 323 out of a possible 324 games during her career and has posted 100-plus blocks in each of her first three seasons. She also added 280 kills last season, second on the team and tops among returning players this year. Neuburger had a career-high 279 digs a year ago, also second on the team and first among returning players.

Other seniors with significant playing experience are Katrina Nelson, Joscelyn Hannaford and Megan McMillan. Nelson played in all 29 matches as a junior, when she emerged into a starting middle blocker role after seeing significant action as a back-up her first two years. Hannaford has been OSU's starting opposite the last two seasons, playing in all but one match during that span. McMillan played in 28 matches last season, her first with the Beavers after transferring to OSU in 2000, and she made an immediate impact offensively and defensively.

'Lack of Pac-10 experience will not be a factor with the group of seniors we'll have out on the court this year,' Somera said. 'For the most part, all seniors are competitively mature and that provides for a certain level of comfort and chemistry on the floor. Fewer situations will surprise a veteran team.'

Somera believes that the senior leadership will balance the loss of Gina Schmidt, Lori Daedelow and Jessica Papell. Schmidt, an All-Pac-10 Team selection, finished her career as one of five Beavers with 1,000 career kills and digs. She led the Beavers in both categories the last two seasons.

While losing Schmidt's offense will be a factor, Somera's mind is always on defense.

'We really only lose one person's offense, but without Gina, Lori and Jessica, we've lost three of our top back row defenders,' Somera said.

The trio of seniors accounted for 45 percent of OSU's defense last year. Schmidt led the team with 346 digs, while Daedelow ranked third with 260 and Papell was fourth with 238, leaving the Beavers without three of their top four defensive players from the 2001 season.

'Replacing the defensive output of the graduated seniors was an emphasis in the gym this past spring,' Somera said, 'but improvements by the underclassmen were significant and the addition of the libero position should help our defense.'

Clearly the 2001 seniors were major contributors but Somera trusts in the growth and capabilities of her returning players. In addition to the six seniors, the Beavers return a solid core of underclassmen for the 2002 season, giving OSU a number of possibilities for this year's lineup.

Among them are two players who earned honorable mention Pacific-10 recognition last season. Starting setter Laura Collins was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 player who started every match as a sophomore last year, and outside hitter Allison Lawrence was an honorable mention pick on the Pac-10's All-Freshman Team as a rookie.

Also back are senior Tami Halleck, juniors Lianne Dela Cruz and K.C. Frederic, sophomore Amanda Eggert and redshirt freshmen Katelyn Healy and Karah Rhoades. Joining them are a pair of true freshmen in setter Desma Stovall and libero/outside hitter Stacy Gorin. In addition, All-Big Sky outside hitter Anne Watts-Roberts, a junior, has transferred from Montana State. While she'll have to redshirt this season because of transfer rules, she'll provide a high level of competition for the starters in the practice gym.

The Outside Hitters

Six players will be vying for three outside hitting positions, with two seniors, a junior, a sophomore and two freshmen in the mix for playing time.

Joscelyn Hannaford and Megan McMillan, the two seniors, split time on the right side as juniors a year ago. However, because they are seniors, Somera said their experience is a reason she's considering moving one of them over to the left side or redefining their roles by having the pair split time on the right and left sides, allowing both of them to be on the court at the same time.

'If experience wins out, either Joss or Megan could take over a left side spot. We'll take a look at offensive and defensive production and may end up redefining positions in a less traditional fashion. We may have them share roles, with the two alternating right and left side,' Somera said. 'That will give each of them the opportunity to still hit on their strong side, at least part of the time. We'll have to see how the team chemistry is. I don't want their strengths watered down because they are trying to be remember the responsibilities of two positions, but I think they can handle it and we could have a lot fun being creative.'

But at least one underclassman will have to step in and fill the other outside hitting spot, and sophomore Allison Lawrence looks to have an early edge after earning honorable mention Pac-10 All-Freshman Team recognition last year.

'Given her playing time last season and her contributions during spring, it seems that she'll rise to the top of the depth chart this season,' Somera said. 'Allison has an advantage in that she played club volleyball in southern California, where she saw high-level competition every weekend from a younger age. She was able to develop her skills and a well-rounded game at an earlier age.'

Junior K.C. Frederic will add depth on the left side, although Somera anticipates using her part-time as a libero. 'If ball control is lacking in either of our left side positions, then I wouldn't hesitate to see what K.C. could do for us all around,' Somera said.

A pair of redshirt freshmen, Karah Rhoades and Katelyn Healy, will look for playing time as well after benefiting from a year in the program.

'Karah is the most athletic and most dynamic player we have on our team. She simply needs to refine some skills and continue to learn the position. I anticipate her becoming a key role player for us this season because she is so physical,' Somera said. 'Katelyn moves the ball around well and is working on generating more offensive power. She's more confident in her game after having a full year to learn and understand our system.'

The Middle Blockers

With only three middle blockers, depth once again is an issue at this position.

Experience, however, is not as starters Michele Solomon and Katrina Nelson, both seniors, return.

Solomon has played every match of her OSU career, missing only one game over the last three years. She enters her final season ranked among OSU's top 10 players for career blocks and hitting percentage.

'Michele is one of the best blockers I've ever coached when she's defending a team that's in system. Her blocking totals are usually among the top 10 in the Pac-10, but that's not what she's best at. Her biggest strength is getting in front of attackers and forcing them into our floor defense,' said assistant coach Ben Somera, who coaches the middle blockers. 'She also made a huge jump in her hitting percentage last year, so she's becoming a much more efficient hitter. As a fifth-year senior, she should feel even more comfortable.'

Nelson is coming off a junior year in which she exceeded all expectations. Not only did she have to learn a new position, but she had to do so while battling back from an ACL injury suffered late in her sophomore season. She ended up earning a starting position and was named the Most Inspirational Player by her teammates in 2001.

'Katrina was a huge surprise for us last year, not having played middle blocker before last August. She had a great year. She's one of our most offensive players, and I feel real comfortable giving her the ball,' Somera said. 'Her greatest impact, though, is the positive energy she brings to the court. You can't overcome an ACL and do what she's done without a 'can-do' attitude.'

Backing up the two seniors is sophomore Amanda Eggert, who saw limited action last year but was a key role player for the Beavers.

'Right now Amanda is our most offensive player who doesn't start. Last year, we could put her in when we needed a big kill, and there were several times when we won a game or a match because of a kill from Amanda,' Somera said. 'I hope she sees a little more playing time this year, because the only thing she needs is to get more experience. For the role we've needed her to play, she's pretty good at it.'

Said head coach Nancy Somera, 'I appreciate everything that the middle blockers do to make our team good. I guess it goes back to my own playing days as an outside hitter where I knew my success was dependent on a middle blocker who drove hard to attack every time, creating seams in the block for me.'

That kind of work ethic is what she expects from the OSU middle blockers, but she is quick to recognize their efforts. 'I remind the outside hitters to thank their middle blockers when they get to crush a ball in the seam,' she said.

As with the outside hitters, there is the possibility of a couple players switching positions if need be. Joscelyn Hannaford, a probable starter at opposite, could carry some of the load at middle blocker, with Nelson playing some at opposite, her position before she switched to the middle last year.

The Setters

After earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 recognition last season - her first as a starter - junior Laura Collins returns to take control of the Beaver offense for another year.

New setting coach Michael Seemann is pleased with what he's seen from her so far.

'It's a privilege for me to work with someone who has the athleticism Laura has,' the first-year OSU assistant said.

While she made an immediate impact with her athletic talents after taking over the starting role last year, Collins is focusing on some other aspects of her game this season.

'Laura set some goals of becoming more of a leader in the spring. She is a leader athletically and physically, but we're working on her becoming more of a vocal leader,' he said. 'We need the players on the court to be able to go to her and say, 'Take us somewhere.' I think she understands that, and can be that kind of setter.'

Joining Collins is freshman Desma Stovall, who graduated from El Molino High School last December and was able to join the Beavers for spring training. While Collins probably has the starting role locked up, Stovall should see playing time this season.

'It was great to have her in the spring. She brings a level of competitiveness that is unmatched. She always finds a way to win. I think the speed of the game at this level is still passing her up a bit, but she knows what she needs to do to get better. She's put away some of her setting goals to work on improving other areas of her game, and she's doing a great job,' Seemann said. 'I don't think she's ready to start, but she's definitely ready to contribute, and I think we'll need her this year.'

Nancy Somera agreed with Seemann. 'I think a lot of our opponents last year were surprised by Laura's setting talents,' she said. 'I don't think she realizes how strong of leader she really could be, because she tends to take more of a reserved role. But she's a junior this season and a captain, so she needs to focus on leading like an upperclassman.'

Somera's opinion is that the two setters are opposites in their strengths right now. 'Desma lets it be known that she wants to win, and gets people playing to win,' she said. 'She does some things right now as a setter where you say, 'Wow!', but will then turn around and show that she needs to get stronger and more disciplined in the fundamentals.'

The Defensive Specialists and Liberos

For the first time, a libero will be allowed in NCAA volleyball, but Somera isn't quite sure how she'll use the new position.

The libero is a back-row player, intended to be a ball-control specialist. She is allowed to replace any back-row player without counting as a substitution.

But, because the libero is not allowed to serve, Somera may keep using the defensive specialist position as well.

Senior Nikki Neuburger has played every match of her OSU career and is a frontrunner for one of the spots, with juniors K.C. Frederic and Lianne Dela Cruz also challenging for playing time.

'As a starter last year, Nikki definitely would appear to slide right into the libero spot, but she's one of our top servers. We scored a lot of points off her serving last year, so we'll have to determine match to match what we need more - serving or passing,' Somera said.

One advantage the libero position does give the Beavers is the ability to replace two players with one. And since the team lost both of its center back defenders (Schmidt and Daedelow), the libero position will be a benefit.

Instead of needing to find two new center backs, the Beavers only need to find one, most likely Frederic.

'K.C. brings a lot of energy to the court. She's quick, she can cover the whole court, and she's got good ball control. While she's still a candidate for an outside hitting position, this might be the perfect spot for her,' Somera said. 'And since the libero doesn't have to be the same person the entire match, we have some flexibility to make needed changes as the match progresses.'

Somera anticipates Dela Cruz staying as a defensive specialist, because serving and digging are her two biggest assets.

'I see Lianne as someone we'll use when we need to pick up our serving and defense, particularly at the end of a game. As a junior she's comfortable in our system and can play all back row positions,' Somera said. 'Her role will probably become more defined as we determine how we are going to use the new libero position.'

Freshman Stacy Gorin and senior Tami Halleck are also available.

'Stacy has a gun of an arm and a jump serve, and she's pretty rangy on defense. Whether she can bring that to this level when balls are coming much faster and harder, we'll have to wait and see,' Somera said. 'As always, our expectations for freshmen are to come in, learn the system and get acclimated to the pace of the collegiate game. Lots of freshmen play, but I think it's going to take a lot for her to beat out the upperclassmen.'

'Tami is always looking for an opportunity to contribute, whether that's in practice or in a match,' said Somera. 'When she does get those opportunities, you know you'll get full effort, mentally, physically and emotionally, from Tami. Her work ethic carries over to her teammates and that makes us a better team.'

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