Eagles Face Top Foes

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Eastern Washington takes on a trio of teams that are receiving top-25 votes and advanced to last year’s NCAA Tournament

Fresh off a Big Sky Conference outright regular-season title, the Eastern Washington University volleyball team kicks off its 2009 campaign with nine challenging non-conference matches, the first three of which are this weekend.

The Eagles head to Eugene, Ore., and will play on Friday (Aug. 28) versus Missouri State at 4:30 p.m. The following day, Eastern takes on No. 14 Oregon at 10 a.m. before playing San Francisco at 4:30 p.m.

All three of those teams received votes in the AVCA Coaches Top 25 Preseason Poll. Each also advanced to the NCAA Championship with Missouri State and USF both taking part in first round matches, while the Ducks rode a pair of wins to a Sweet 16 appearance, their second consecutive.

The Eagles have only played Missouri State one time in history, when the Bears prevailed by 15-13, 15-6 scores on Sept. 22, 1984. Eastern has played impressively versus Oregon, trailing the all-time series by a narrow 3-2 count. The Eagles also trail the Dons all-time, 3-2.

Eastern Washington finished the 2008 season 18-11 overall, 12-4 in Big Sky matches, and advanced to the league’s championship match. The Eagles enter 2009 having won 12-of-14 contests.

In the Big Sky Coaches Preseason Poll, defending Big Sky Tournament champion Portland State, who finished just behind the Eagles in the regular-season standings a year ago, were picked first. The Vikings were follwed, in order, by Eastern Washington, Northern Colorado, Montana, Weber State, Sacramento State, Northern Arizona, Idaho State and Montana State.

Eagles to Scratch and Claw for Big Sky Title - 2009 Season Preview
The Eastern Washington University volleyball squad looks to break through this year and claim the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship for the first time since 2001 and the third time in school history. The team definitely has the talent and experience to do so, as all six starters return from a team that claimed the regular-season crown a year ago and advanced to the league’s championship match.

“We have a strong group of athletes and more depth at every position than we’ve ever had; I feel comfortable having nine or 10 different players start,” said Miles Kydd, 2008 Big Sky Coach of the Year. “Our biggest challenge will be to have this group of players learn to compete at that next level, the level where things get hard, and find a way to get the job done.”

Although the Eagles will be deep in just about every position, the team does have a hole to fill in the loss of 2007 Big Sky Libero of the Year Mandy Daniels, who finished her four-year career with school records in digs per set for a season as well as for a career.

“We have three players capable of doing the job, and it will be a competition to see which one of them will fill in,” Kydd said.

In 2008, Eastern Washington finished 12-4 in league play and, by virtue of winning the regular-season title, will play host to the 2009 Championship. The Eagles were 18-11 overall against a top-quality schedule.

Even though the Eagles are working to make 2009 a breakthrough year, the team has been solid for more than a decade, finishing in the top three of the league standings the past 13 years (first on four occasions) and advancing to the Big Sky’s championship match nine times.

The team will be very mixed experience-wise, as it will be comprised of four seniors, five juniors, three sophomores and four freshmen.

The setter position will be especially deep for the Eagles in 2009, as four players will compete for playing time at that position, including two with extensive experience.

“We’re deep with two senior setters,” Kydd said. “Both Ashley Hamilton and Amanda Yausie are very capable setters, while Laney Brown and Lindsay Niemeier are the future of our setting.”

Last year, Hamilton had the bulk of the time at the position and earned All-Big Sky honorable mention accolades after her 9.84 assists per set placed her fifth in the Big Sky and 104th among NCAA Division I players.

“Ashley is a very strong worker,” Kydd said. “Our team success matters a lot to her, and her approach is very team oriented. She is very physical and spent last year playing with basically the same people who will be on the floor this year.”

Although Yausie battled injuries throughout the 2008 season, she has shown her impressive skills earlier in her career, placing fourth in the Big Sky and 201st nationally in assists per set as a freshman (9.68).

“Amanda started for us as a freshman and has a wealth of experience,” Kydd said. “Last year, she was limited by (the health of) her back. Amanda brings a lot of energy to the court.”

Brown returns in 2009 after utilizing a redshirt season last year. She had been named to the Associated Press 2B All-State second team her senior year of high school before arriving at Eastern.

“Laney is a very natural, strong leader who does a lot of things instinctively,” Kydd said. “We are still working on getting her to be more efficient and accurate, but in terms of her feel for the game and ability to connect with the middles, she is a very intuitive setter.”

Niemeier joins the program after finishing a stellar high school career by earning All-State honorable mention accolades and setting Shadle Park High School to the 3A state title in 2008.

“Lindsay is a great athlete who moves smoothly around the court,” Kydd said. “The plan is to redshirt her and get her as many reps as we can, so she can continue to learn. She is going to be an outstanding college player.”

Outside Hitters
The Eagles will have considerable experience returning at the outside hitter position, including the Big Sky Player of the Year and a player who earned All-Big Sky honorable mention accolades.

“We really have depth at this position with good players throughout our depth chart,” Kydd said. “If our starters cannot go for whatever reason, we have good players to go in for them.”

Hayley Hills has been named first team All-Big Sky the past two years and was the league POY in 2008. Last year, the powerful hitter finished eighth nationally – and first in the Big Sky – in kills per set (4.58).

“Our goal for Hayley is for her to improve and to make our team better, from her play, her on-court leadership and her ability to inspire her teammates,” Kydd said. “That may sound like a big load for one player, but we’re going to have more balance in our offense this year, and we need Hayley to be better at different things and rise to the occasion, which I am confident she will do.”

Alysha Cook also had an impressive campaign a season ago, and she was rewarded for it with All-Big Sky honorable mention accolades. She had double-digit kill totals 14 times that year.

“Alysha’s a great blocker and can be one of the top attackers in our conference,” Kydd said. “She needs to be more dominant, especially on the attack side, than she has been the last couple of years.”

Jacque Brown has also been a solid contributor at outside hitter. Her best match of 2008 came on Oct. 4 versus Northern Arizona, when she had 16 kills and 21 digs.

“Jacque had an outstanding spring and has done a lot since the 2008 season ended,” Kydd said. “She is going to have a great year. She is much more confident and stronger and was easily our best blocker this spring.”

Cora Kellerman saw considerable playing time as a freshman in 2008. Her highest kill total of the campaign came in a 3-2 road win over Gonzaga on Oct. 13, as she contributed 11 putaways in that contest.

“Cora is going to be a very good player for us,” Kydd said. “She was our second-best blocker this spring and has improved her passing a lot. But the thing that stands out most to me is that she is playing within herself right now, not holding back, playing more like she did in high school.”

Shelby Puckett arrives in Cheney after being named the state 2B Player of the Year as a senior and the 1B POY the year before. She also helped her high school squad to the 1B state crown, its first, two years ago.

“Shelby is a great athlete,” Kydd said. “She gives us more flexibility and is an outstanding student who epitomizes what it means to be a student-athlete. She is a very good blocker and attacker and has a lot of growth potential.”

Ashley Wright earned 1A All-State honors after helping her Cascade High School (Leavenworth) squad to its first berth in the state tournament since 2004.

“Ashley is a very good athlete who has shown she can rise to the occasion in big games and big situations,” Kydd said. “She is a good blocker already and, when she gets stronger, she will be a very good hitter. Her challenge will be learning the back row and passing (she played middle in high school and club).”

Middle Blockers
The middle blocker position will be especially strong in 2008, as three players, each with two years of quality Division I experience, will see time there.

“It’s going to be dogfight in training,” Kydd said. “We have two players who have been here two years and know our setter and understand what we’re trying to do and a player who has been one of Arizona State’s leading blockers the last two seasons.”

Chenoa Coviare followed up an impressive season with All-Big Sky honorable mention accolades. She finished fourth and 10th in the Big Sky in blocks per set (1.04) and hitting percentage (.241), respectively.

“Chenoa’s strengths are her attacking and blocking skills,” Kydd said. “She is a gifted player who needs to rise to the challenge, be one of the top two or three middles in the conference and to realize her potential.”

Allison Reinstein was not only solid in the middle throughout 2008, but was also one of the best servers in the Big Sky, as exemplified by her 0.23 service aces per set, the 10th-best average in the conference.

“Allison’s strengths complement Chenoa’s, which are serving and defense,” Kydd said. “In the spring, she passed perfect and just needs to come back ready to compete.”

Sara Todorovich has been a solid player at Arizona State the past two years and will join the Eagles in 2009. Last year, she ranked 145th nationally in blocks per set (0.99) and hit at a .246 clip.

“It’s going to be a getting-to-know-you process with Sara for her and the coaching staff and her teammates,” Kydd said. “She is one of those players who can really control a match and is a great kid with lots of energy.”

Defensive Specialists
The biggest loss for Eastern Washington entering the 2009 season is at the libero position, as former Eagle Daniels finished up her remarkable career a year ago. However, the Eagles have plenty of quality players ready to fill that position entering the new campaign.

“Obviously, JaNae Mortensen has been on the court the most and is probably the best passer of the three, but Lindsey Petroni and Amy VanderWel have come along quite a bit in the spring,” Kydd said. “The thing that I like about all three is that they show up every day steady and never in panic mode.”

The most experience by returning back-row players has been garnered by Mortensen. Her best match a year ago saw her record 22 digs in a 3-1 win over Notre Dame on Sept. 5.

“JaNae brings a lot of energy and has a great jump serve,” Kydd said. “She does not waste a lot of energy when she is passing, is very efficient, and has a good understanding of what we are trying to do as a team and as a coaching staff.”

Petroni played well in limited action as a freshman in 2008, playing in nine matches and having a season-high five digs in that win over the Fighting Irish.

“Lindsay has the most energy on the team and is a great defensive player,” Kydd said. “She is fearless, sharing that quality with Mandy, and is our most spectacular defensive player in chasing balls down.”

VanderWel also saw limited playing time a year ago, but played well when on the court, most impressively achieving a double-digit dig total (10) in a four-set win over Washington State.

“Amy has a very steady demeanor and a great serve,” Kydd said. “Her passing has gotten a lot better. She has some physical limitations that she will hopefully be able to take care of over the summer (previous hamstring, back injuries).”

Eastern Washington will face one of its toughest schedules in school history this season. The slate includes four road matches versus Pacific-10 Conference opponents, two of which advanced to the NCAA Sweet 16, as well as matches against four other teams who advanced to the 2008 NCAA Tournament.

“We schedule tough teams, teams that played in the (NCAA) Tournament, to see what they are doing so we can match and better it,” Kydd said. “That’s where we want to be and where we see ourselves, and playing those types of teams will best prepare us to achieve our goals, to make the NCAA Tournament and win matches there.”

The first weekend of the season, the Eagles will head to the Oregon Classic to face three 20-win teams from a year ago in Missouri State (23-13), Oregon (25-9) and San Francisco (22-8). All three made postseason play, while the Ducks rode a pair of NCAA wins to the Regional Semifinals.

The following weekend, EWU takes on Houston, Nevada and Arizona at the Marriott University Park Wildcat Classic in Tucson, Ariz. Houston had the best 2008 campaign of the three, compiling a 20-12 mark, but the other two squads have historically had strong squads and are expected to be tough opposition.

Another challenging road trip follows. The Eagles face 2008 NCAA team Saint Mary’s in Moraga, Calif., before making a short 13-mile trip to Berkeley to take part in the Molten/Hilton Garden Inn Classic and face San Jose State and host California, who had one of the best years in the country last year. The Golden Bears went 26-7 and advanced to the Regional Final before falling to eventual national champion Penn State on its home court.

During the Big Sky season, the highlighted matches are expected to be the pair with Portland State, the team the Eagles outlasted for the regular-season crown a year ago but who defeated EWU in the league’s championship match. The Vikings pay a visit to Cheney on Oct. 9, while the Eagles will take a trip to the Rose City on Nov. 7.

However, the race for the Big Sky championship expects to be a heated one with several teams expected to enter the mix. The Eagles commence their league campaign with home matches versus Montana and Montana State on Sept. 17 and 19, respectively, and close it out with a brief one-match road trip to Sacramento State on Nov. 21.

Earlier that week, on Nov. 17, the Eagles will take on their fourth Pac-10 opponent of the campaign with a short trip to Pullman to face Washington State. The team’s annual rivalry contest with Gonzaga will take place a month earlier on Oct. 6 and will be hosted by the Eagles this year.

The Eagles will play host to the four-team Championship from Nov. 27-28.

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