2003 Volleyball Season Outlook
Aug. 19, 2003
Oregon State volleyball coach Nancy Somera has known for a couple years that the 2003 season - her fifth with the Beavers - would be a rebuilding one.
She was anticipating the rebuilding process to start this fall, with the task of replacing five senior starters while teaching six incoming freshmen to adapt to the Oregon State system and the fast pace of the collegiate game.
When the 2002 season took an unexpected turn, the Beavers got an early start on the rebuilding they had planned to do this season.
Somera had expected to lose two starting middle blockers, one left side hitter, the right side hitter and the libero after the 2002 season, leaving the 2003 squad with only setter Laura Collins and outside hitter Allison Lawrence, the team's co-captains this season, as players with starting experience.
Injuries soon set in, however, and two of those five senior starters missed a majority of their final season. As a result, outside hitter Karah Rhoades and middle blocker Katelyn Healy, both redshirt freshmen last year, found themselves in starting roles in a season when they weren't expected to see much action. Another young middle blocker, then-sophomore Amanda Eggert, was also able to see significant playing time in a number of matches.
'We've known that 2003 was going to be a rebuilding year, but it's less than what we were anticipating a year and a half ago when we were recruiting to replace our large senior class,' Somera said. 'We weren't expecting some of our younger players like Karah and Katelyn to see a lot of playing time last year, but they ended up starting, so in a way we got an early start on the rebuilding process about halfway through the 2002 season.'
Still, even with the relative youth of the team - only two of the 14 players are seniors and six are rookies - Somera says her team can contend for a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
'Whether we're rebuilding or not, we always have a legitimate chance at the NCAA Tournament,' she said. 'Last year, the NCAA selected eight Pac-10 teams, so if we do what we need to do out of conference and are steady in the Pac-10, our chances are more than good.'
The players know they'll have to work a little harder early on because of the inexperience, but they are motivated and ready to make a name for themselves.
'I see us working especially hard in the preseason double days and tournaments to define ourselves. This team is new and therefore completely different from the team last year and the year before. We need to figure out our own chemistry - our own strengths and weaknesses,' said Lawrence. 'By giving nothing but our best focus, energy and heart to our mental and physical training, we can define ourselves and refine our skills in time to play like a team full of seniors.'
K.C. Frederic, one of the team's two seniors, is eager to get the season started.
'I think the experience the younger players got last year will work to our advantage this year, and we'll have success,' she said. 'I want my career to end on a bang.'
The eight returning players had a successful spring training period, and Collins said the team is prepared to continue where it left off.
'We're approaching the upcoming season with the same focus and intensity we had in the spring. It's hard to say how the season will shape out, but if our spring season was any indication, then I feel we'll do well,' Collins, the team's other senior, said. 'We built a lot of trust and regained our confidence in the spring, and those things will be key to having a successful season.'
As the only player with more than a year of starting experience at the Pac-10 level, Collins will be a key factor in the team's success. A two-time honorable mention All-Pac-10 setter, she ranked second in the league with 12.49 assists per game a year ago and has her sights set on leading the Beavers back to the NCAA Tournament her senior year.
Collins may not be the only setter the Beavers use this year. The team experimented with a 6-2 offense in the spring, with sophomore Desma Stovall sharing the duties with Collins, and Somera is considering continuing it this fall.
'There are so many positives to using a 6-2 offense. At times, our transition setting is much better with both setters on the floor. It might also help take the pressure off our inexperienced middle blockers if we have two other attackers flanking them in the front row,' Somera said. 'Our staff will need to determine what criteria to use to figure out if we're better with one or two setters. You can look at statistics, but it isn't always so cut and dry.'
Collins actually ran a 6-2 offense in high school and had to be taught the 5-1 offense when she arrived in Corvallis three years ago.
'Laura is comfortable and at-home in a 6-2 offense. She enjoys hitting and was very efficient in the spring, which surprised me somewhat, because she hasn't taken a lot of swings over the last two years,' Somera said. 'The two (Collins and Stovall) really complement each other well on the court. Desma is more vocal and demonstrative during a match, which helps fire everybody up, and Laura uses her athleticism and speed to take the pressure off our ball control. At only 5-10, she is one of the best tight-ball setters I have ever seen.'
As for Collins, she's prepared to set whatever offense will make her senior season the most successful.
'Since I've been setting a 5-1 for a few years now, I feel more comfortable with it over the 6-2, but if we do use two setters, I think it will be an easy adjustment since I set a 6-2 for seven years,' she said. 'There are different advantages to using the 5-1 and the 6-2, and I feel we'll use the offense that makes us the most successful.'
One thing is certain, though. The Beavers will continue to strive for a quick tempo offense on the court, regardless of the number of setters or attackers they opt to use.
'Bottom line - we're looking for the most productive offense and side-out efficiency we can get without giving up strength in our defense,' Somera said. 'What that looks like is still very much up in the air.'
In the three outside hitter positions, the Beavers have a trio of returning players topping the early list of candidates for starting jobs.
Lawrence started every match as a sophomore last year and led the Beavers with 329 kills (3.39 kpg), including 20 or more in four matches.
'Right now, Allison is one of the few players who we can say we know where she'll be in the line-up,' Somera said. 'She is one of our best ball control players and her steadiness in competitive situations earned her a captain role this year.'
Rhoades started off the 2002 season as a backup but moved into a starting role midseason and ended up earning honorable mention recognition on the Pac-10 All-Freshman Team. She finished with 204 kills (2.83 kpg), including 156 in Pac-10 matches to rank second on the team with 3.32 kills per game against conference teams.
'Karah is capable of putting up big numbers as an attacker,' Somera said. 'She hit .275 or higher in 10 of the 16 matches she started and had 10 or more kills in 13 of those 16.'
Joining the mix this year is Montana State transfer Anne Watts-Roberts, a junior who had to sit out last year due to NCAA rules. She was a two-time first team All-Big Sky player for the Bobcats and had 813 kills in two years.
'Anne's attacking and blocking is as good as any in the conference,' said Somera. 'She is a terminating outside hitter whose competitive maturity will even the scales with what could be a young line-up on the floor at times.'
While starting positions aren't solidified, Somera is excited about her returning group of outside hitters.
'It may take awhile to settle into a lineup that utilizes the strengths of all three, but I see them all playing a significant role this season,' she said. 'And when we find that right combination, we'll enjoy it for two seasons.'
Returning at middle blocker are Eggert and Healy, although there are several freshmen who could earn starting jobs as well.
Eggert, who, at 6-4, is at least three inches taller than any other player on the roster, has a size advantage over the others. Entering her fourth year in the program, the redshirt junior also has more experience, giving her an early nod for one of the positions.
'Amanda is really starting to see the benefits of that redshirt year. Blocking improves with experience, and each year she's become a better blocker,' Somera said. 'She really came into her game this spring, playing more aggressively and with more confidence, and she's one of our most offensive players behind the setter.'
Healy, a former outside hitter, started training as a middle blocker last year and ended up starting 10 of the last 11 matches.
'Katelyn's a good volleyball player, and she's gotten better with more playing time. She's a solid, steady six-rotation player,' Somera said. 'She's a little out of position in the middle because of her size, but consistency is a much needed strength, too.'
As with Eggert, Somera was pleased with Healy's progress over the spring.
'Middle blocker is a difficult position to master at this level. Most are lost out there for awhile before they find their way, and Katelyn is finding her way pretty quickly,' Somera said. 'She perceives well and that's helped speed up her learning curve.'
Four of the six incoming freshmen have experience in the middle and will challenge for starting roles as well.
Brittany Cahoon, a Student Sports Hot 100 Class of 2003 selection, is the most likely of the rookies to start in the middle this year.
'It's hard to predict whether or not a freshman can hold down a starting role. There's a lot to learn, adjusting to the pace of the game and to college life in general,' Somera said. 'Brittany has size and speed, but experience could give Katelyn and Amanda the edge. One thing is for sure, there will be a lot of bodies competing for those starting positions.'
Another big spot to fill is the libero position, with the Beavers losing Nikki Neuburger, whose 3.90 digs per game ranked among the top three in the Pac-10 a year ago. OSU also lost several other seniors who were a key reason the team ranked second in the league for digs last year.
'A big question mark going into spring training was defense, but as we trained and played more matches, we began to get more comfortable in our floor defense,' Somera said. 'As players mature, there's a shift from 'I'm a little lost' to 'Oh, I get it.' Defense gets easier when you can see things better and not get caught by surprise.'
The leading candidate to take over the libero role is K.C. Frederic. Frederic picked up 143 digs as a defensive specialist last year and will be looking to see more time on the court as a libero this season.
'K.C. has been a contributor in some form since her freshman year,' Somera said. 'She has more than enough skill to be a starter as libero this season.'
Some of the freshmen also will be considered, and Somera said Healy also could challenge for time as a libero if she's not in the lineup as a middle blocker.
The team likely will spend the early part of the fall focusing on some of the basics, with six freshmen needing to adapt to the collegiate level and become comfortable with OSU's system, but Somera is looking forward to what the rookies will bring.
'We have a really talented group that has a balance of skill, athleticism, experience and leadership. There are six of them, and since that's nearly half our team, their role will be to compete for starting positions,' Somera said. 'It's a large class, and we'll decide as we go, but we'll probably redshirt some of them.'
With so many rookies on the team, the upperclassmen will be looked upon to make the adjustment as easy as possible for the newcomers, but Lawrence is quick to point out that the rookies will provide a boost to the upperclassmen as well.
'Although youth can sometimes be a disadvantage because of the inexperience that goes along with it, I think the youth on our team will bring a refreshing boost of energy. The freshmen are very healthy and hungry to learn, play and compete in the Pac-10,' she said. 'A fresh, energized and young team is often overlooked because of its greater inexperience, but we have great seniors and upperclassmen will lead the fresh new energy to success.'
The majority of those newcomers are middle blockers. Joining Cahoon in that position are Michelle Franz and Rachael Withers. Somera said she'll probably redshirt at least one of the middles since it's unlikely that three true freshmen would see playing time in that spot.
'Michelle's contribution to her team's success can sometimes be overlooked until you see statisitics,' Somera said. 'There isn't anything flamboyant about her play, but how few errors she makes stands out right away.'
'Rachael has a wing span of a 6-4 player, which naturally makes her an exceptional blocker,' Somera added. 'She has the right combination of agility and jumping ability, and when combined with our strength program, she'll develop into a threat at the net.'
Also new to OSU is right side hitter/middle blocker Abby Windell, last year's Gatorade Player of the Year in Oregon as well as a Student Sports Hot 100 Class of 2003 selection.Somera has compared Windell to 2002 senior Joscelyn Hannaford, whose ability to play both opposite and middle was key to OSU's success.
'Abby is versatile and has played a variety of positions throughout her career to this point. We see her developing into a slide-hitting opposite who will be tough to defend,' said Somera, who is also encouraged by Windell's leadership skills. 'Eventually Abby's leadership will be as instrumental to our success as her skills.'
Another jack of all trades newcomer is Taylor Studzinski, an all-state player from Illinois who could play as a libero, outside hitter or possibly setter with some training.
'We're excited to see where Taylor can provide depth,' Somera said. 'She'll train as an outside hitter, and we'll see if her ball control can help us immediately. Eventually we'd like to see if she can develop into setter depth.'
The final newcomer is outside hitter Kristin Murray, a three-sport standout from Crescent City's Del Norte High School.
'Kristin, our diamond-in-the-rough, will turn a lot of heads this season during warm-ups,' Somera said. 'She's such a fabulous athlete, who, even with only high school level experience, is explosive and fluid in all the volleyball movement skills.'
Regardless of the youth on the 2003 team, Somera knows her team's success will come down to one thing.
'Our strength is going to come down to being in system. The more often we're able to do that, the more competitive we'll be,' she said. 'We can't overpower the big, physical teams, but we can outsystem them, and that will always be our goal.'