After two tough losses in 2010, Eastern out for redemption against Redhawks
For the second year in a row, the Eastern Washington University volleyball team will open its season with a trio of matches on the Westside. The Eagles head to Seattle, Wash., for the Seattle University Fall Volley, where they will face host Seattle, Washington State and Santa Clara. Eastern plays SU on Friday (Aug. 26) at 11 a.m., and then takes on WSU and SCU in back-to-back matches at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. on Saturday (Aug. 27).
Eastern had its first small test of the season last weekend in the annual Alumni Scrimmage at Reese Court. It took the Eagles five competitive sets, but the 2011 squad eventually prevailed against its predecessors.
"I think our team was a little surprised and disappointed with how we played against the alumni," said EWU head coach Miles Kydd. "We weren't too happy about blowing a 24-20 lead in the first set and then allowing the match to go to five, but we eventually did find a way to win."
"We certainly aren't sizing ourselves for championship rings," added Kydd. "But I know we have worked extremely hard to prepare for the start of the season and I think in terms of cohesiveness, our team is further along at this point than we were last year. We have some talented newcomers who are doing a great job for us, and a few of our returning players have really stepped up and embraced their roles as leaders on and off the court."
In the first matchup against Seattle, EWU will be out for vengeance after losing two matches to the Redhawks during the 2010 season.
"Our first match is going to be a strong test," said Kydd. "Besides a new setter and a returning redshirt-junior, Seattle U is basically the same exact team that beat us twice last season. We are definitely looking for redemption, and anticipate a competitive match on their home court."
The Eagles will also look for a better result against Washington State, which topped EWU 3-0 during the 2010 campaign. However, the team Eastern sees on Saturday in Seattle is likely to be completely different than the 2010 squad. The Cougars return only four letterwinners from a year ago and have a new head coach in Jen Greeny.
"We really don't know much about Washington State this year," said Kydd. "They are adjusting to a new coach and new system, but as a Pac-12 school, we do know they will have talent and can certainly compete."
Santa Clara will present another early-season challenge for EWU. The Broncos have earned a bid to the NCAA tournament in seven of the last 10 years, including a Final Four appearance in 2005. SCU head coach Jon Wallace returned six starters and four other letterwinners from his 2010 squad that went 14-14 overall.
Saturday's meeting between EWU and SCU will be the sixth in history. Santa Clara has a slight 3-2 edge in the all-time series.
SEASON OUTLOOK: With Added Size and Strength, Eagles Poised for Resurgence in the Sky
Of the many factors to consider when preparing for an upcoming season, there was one in particular that stood out to Eastern Washington University head volleyball coach Miles Kydd.
"We must be able to win battles at the net," proclaimed Kydd, who is now in his fourth year at the helm of the EWU volleyball program.
"In order to compete with the big dogs in this conference, we have to have the size and athleticism to win at the net. Our blocking was successful last year, and our defense did a fine job, but the bottom line is, we need hitters who can put the ball away."
With an average height of 6-foot-1 among hitters on his 2011 roster, Kydd should certainly enjoy more stature at the net in the upcoming season.
On the outside, Eastern has a wide array of experience with two returning starters, two returning redshirts and two newcomers. In the middle, the Eagles will be young, as it returns only one letterwinner from the 2010 roster. But its four incoming freshman have tremendous talent, not to mention, height.
Complimenting the hitters is a strong group of returning letterwinners. In the back row, Eastern will enjoy the familiarity and expertise of two senior defensive specialists. Kydd will also rely on two sophomores, who both saw significant court time in the back row last season.
Quarterbacking the Eagles this season will be a capable pair of setters in junior Laney Brown and sophomore Lindsay Niemeier. Both players gained a great deal of experience in 2010, and will use that enhanced confidence and know-how to lead the Eagle offense in 2011.
Kydd and the entire EWU volleyball staff hopes this diverse 17-person roster will be the ticket for its return to the postseason picture.
After finishing sixth in the regular season with a 7-9 league record, Eastern just missed the cut for a bid to the 2010 Big Sky Conference Tournament. Last year was the first time since 1995 that EWU did not advance to postseason play. Prior to 2010, Eastern had finished in the top three of the Big Sky regular-season standings for 14-consecutive years. But after a season plagued with unexpected roster changes and unforeseen injuries, the Eagles came up just short in making it to 15.
"Hopefully the group of returners we have will never have to go through a more difficult year than they did last year," said Kydd. "This team has spent a lot of time reflecting on last season. I truly believe everyone has a better understanding now of what it takes to be successful. Plus, each returning player is a year older and wiser, which always helps."
The growth of these returning players was evident during the winter, spring and even summer seasons.
"As a whole, our group made major strides in the weight room over the winter and had a lot of positive production on the court during our spring scrimmages. We also had eight players who stayed in town over the summer to continue their strength and conditioning training at the highest level. That is the most commitment I've seen since I've been here."
"We also feel extremely confident in our recruiting class," added Kydd. "Only time will tell how good they can be, but we know for sure, each of our seven newcomers will provide athleticism, height and a lot of new enthusiasm."
Contrary to the 2010 season, one of Eastern's deepest positions this year is on the outside. The Eagles, who utilized a 6-2 offense for most of 2010, will welcome back two of its starting outside hitters in junior Shelby Puckett and sophomore Ashley Wright.
Puckett was an All-Big Sky Honorable Mention selection in 2010, after averaging 2.59 kills per set in conference play, which included 11 matches in double digits. She hit on both the left and right side during the year, finishing as the leading hitter on the squad with 272 total kills.
"Shelby is a player we are definitely going to rely on this season," expressed Kydd. "Having to hit from both the left and right side last year, Shelby became a very versatile player. That is really going to help our offense this year."
"She also worked hard on improving her passing during the offseason, which is something we need from all our outside hitters," added Kydd. "There is definitely going to be competition at that position this year, and what will set certain players apart is their ability to pass consistently in serve receive."
During the 2010 spring season, Puckett was the recipient of the Emtman Award - an honor bestowed to one volleyball student-athlete who best exhibits a strong work ethic, perseverance, character and a team-first attitude during the spring season. The 2011 Emtman Award went to Eastern's other returning outside hitter, Ashley Wright.
"Ashley is the epitome of what I want to see in an athlete: hard working, positive, and energetic," said EWU head strength and conditioning coach Nate Brookreson, who administers the Emtman Award. "I have witnessed tremendous growth this year and expect big things from her in the upcoming season."
Wright was also selected as the Most Improved Player by her teammates at the end of the 2010 campaign. She played in 26 of Eastern's 27 matches during her redshirt-freshman season, averaging 1.37 kills and 0.52 blocks per set. She also registered three double-doubles, all of which came in Big Sky Conference play.
"There is a reason Ashley won the Emtman Award this spring," said Kydd. "She brings a lot to the table in terms of work ethic and desire."
"In our last spring scrimmage against Idaho, Ashley completely went off, getting kill after kill against one of the top 30 blocking teams in the nation," added Kydd. "I think that gave her, and us as a coaching staff, a lot of confidence moving forward."
Perhaps the most momentous change to this year's roster is the return of junior Cora Kellerman, who redshirted the 2010 season.
"Cora is our captain, and the unquestioned spirit behind our team," said Kydd. "To have her back on the court will be great for this program."
Kellerman was sidelined in 2010 due to a rare heart condition called atrioventricular reentrant tachycardia. She had three surgeries during the year to try and correct the disorder. The final surgery, performed in December by a specialist from the University of Pennsylvania, was a success and Kellerman was able to be back on the court for the entire 2011 spring season.
Another returning redshirt for Eastern is freshman Britta Forsythe from Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. Forsythe trained as a middle during the spring season, but will be back on the outside come fall.
"Britta is a natural outside hitter, and playing out there will enable her to be a better blocker for us," said Kydd. "She has a great arm swing and can hit at angles that other girls on our team cannot hit."
"We'd like to see Britta become a better passer," added Kydd. "But that challenge is no different for her than anybody else."
The Eagles have also added two new outside hitters, including 6-2 transfer, Kayla Randles.
Randles is a native of Washington, but spent her first year of college in California at UC Riverside. She will have four years of eligibility remaining after redshirting the 2010 season at Riverside.
"We had seen Kayla play in high school, and recognized her talent then," expressed Kydd. "We'll have to see how she fits in with the group, but we know she is a great athlete with a powerful arm swing and strong work ethic."
The other newcomer on the outside is 6-0 Kelsey Julian from Kennewick, Wash. Julian will redshirt the 2011 season, but Kydd is excited about what she can add to the team's practices.
"Kelsey is real competitor," commended Kydd. "She has that assertive, aggressive mentality, which we think is one of the best traits you can bring to the table. We expect her to shine in the weight room, and we know having that kind of strength and skill at practice will make everyone on the floor better, especially those fighting for a position on the outside."
With the loss of two-time All-Big Sky First-Team selection Chenoa Coviare, Eastern was certainly left with a large void to fill after the 2010 season. But the athleticism of his lone returner and four incoming freshmen may be enough to get the job done.
As the only "veteran" member, senior Chenoa Rossi-Childress will lead the group of young middle blockers. As a newcomer behind two senior middles in 2010, Rossi-Childress saw limited action at the beginning of the year. But when Coviare went down with a knee injury late in the conference season, Rossi-Childress proved her value.
She registered 37 kills and 28 blocks in the final six games, which included a double-double performance against Northern Arizona, in which she finished with 12 kills, 10 blocks and a season-high four aces.
"Chenoa is without a doubt one of our best athletes," said Kydd. "As she continues to develop her relationship with the setters, and gets comfortable going up aggressive on every play, she will be a major threat for us offensively."
Joining Rossi-Childress this year is a pair of 6-1 middle blockers, both of whom possess a very high volleyball IQ.
Amanda Brown comes to Eastern from Hacienda Heights, Calif., where she led her team in blocking for two-straight seasons.
"Amanda really blossomed in the last eight months," observed Kydd. "She is playing on a really good club team right now that is having a lot of success. She is getting a lot of reps in a competitive environment and is really learning a lot about her position."
"Amanda will have to work on getting stronger throughout the season, but she is extremely quick and jumps high, so we are confident in her ability to make an immediate impact."
Coming from one of the best high school programs on the islands of Hawaii, freshman Talia Fermantez will also be a viable contender for a starting spot in 2011.
Fermantez was a two-time Interscholastic League of Honolulu First-Team selection out of Kamehameha Schools-Kapalama. Her prep team has captured the Hawaii High School Athletic Association Division I volleyball title for the last six-consecutive years. Fermantez played a major role in securing the most recent title for Kamehameha, as she was named to the 2010 HHSAA All-Tournament team. She recorded more than 30 kills and 15 blocks throughout the championship.
"Talia was considered one of the top graduating high school seniors in the state of Hawaii," applauded Kydd. "She is big and strong and hits really well off of one foot. But even more than her skill set, Talia is a wonderful person. She is always smiling and is really easy to get to know. We are very excited to have her in this program and I know her teammates are going to love her."
The tallest member of Kydd's 2011 recruiting class is Kellen Barfield, a 6-4 middle blocker out of Newport High School in Bellevue, Wash. Barfield, who has had a much shorter prep and club career than most Division I volleyball players, will most likely redshirt the 2011 season.
"Kellen is a completely raw athlete," said Kydd. "And when I say raw, I mean literally untrained. She didn't play a lot of club volleyball, and hasn't had a lot of technical training, but she is an athlete in every sense of the word."
"There will certainly be a learning curve with Kellen," added Kydd. "But we are dealing with a learning curve of a 6-4 athlete who can jump out of the gym. The upside with Kellen is really exciting."
Adding even more depth to the middle is freshman Rachel Morrow out of R.A. Long High School in Longview, Wash. At 6-3, Morrow is another athlete who satisfied Eastern's need for size and power up front.
"Having Rachel on the squad will definitely give us depth and make us better," said Kydd. "Even if she doesn't play a ton as a freshman, she will enable us to train harder every day. If our hitters want to be successful in practice, they will have to learn how to hit around a 6-3 block."
After experimenting with a 6-2 offense in 2010, Eastern is fully equipped to execute this rotation in 2011. And running the show for the red and white will be junior Laney Brown and sophomore Lindsay Niemeier.
"Both of our setters had outstanding winters," said Kydd. "We saw a lot of growth in their abilities to be more consistent and more deceptive."
Brown played in all 27 matches last season, averaging 5.40 assists per game. She recorded 30+ assists on four different occasions and had three double-doubles throughout the year, two of which came in conference play.
"Laney is one of the truest natural athletes on our team," said Kydd. "She has a lot of instinctual ability and she works her tail off, but her challenge has always been to hone in those instincts and focus on the outlined game plan."
"Sometimes we don't mind when Laney goes off-script because she is in a flow and feeling it, but we are still working to get to the point where she knows what she wants to do when she wants to do it, instead of always reacting on impulse."
With the exception of a four-game hiatus in the middle of the season due to a bout with mono, Niemeier also played in every match during her redshirt-freshman season. The Spokane, Wash., native averaged 6.08 assists per game, as well as 1.83 digs, which was the third-highest average on the team. She also had the most service aces of any Eagle with 21 on the year.
"Lindsay has really figured it out over the last year," said Kydd. "Last season, it was a work in progress. She was young and was forced to carry quite a load in her first year on the court. But now, we really feel Lindsay understands how to create situations for her hitters."
"I think she is a bit of a savant when it comes to making the right set," commended Kydd. "Anymore, I don't have to ask her why she made this choice or that. It's going to be especially interesting to see how that development comes to fruition this season when she has some serious hitters at the end of her decisions."
Eastern's defensive unit will be comprised of four returning letterwinners, including two seniors in Lindsey Petroni and Amy VanderWel.
Petroni will enter her final year with the Eagles as one of the top 10 liberos in school history. With a 3.11 digs per set average thus far in her career, Petroni ranks eighth in the EWU career record book. She is also only one of only four athletes in school history to have etched her name in the "30 dig club" on more than one occasion.
Last season, Petroni had seven matches with 20+ digs and two outings with more than 30. She twice recorded a season-high 32 pickups, which was the fifth-best defensive performance turned in by all players in the Big Sky.
"Lindsey is a terrific defender in terms of chasing balls down and quick reactions," said Kydd. "For her, the challenge has always been finding a way to simply relax and play. She knows she has the skills, it's just a matter of getting her brain out of the way and really believing it."
"With that said, I think she made some real improvements in that area during the winter and spring. She really understands now what she needs to do to be successful, and she is confident in her ability to make an impact."
After battling with injuries for much of her career, VanderWel is hoping for a solid senior season in which she is on the court for all 27 matches.
"Right now, Amy is the healthiest she's been since her freshman season," said Kydd. "She was back in the weight room this winter and went through the entire spring without having to take any time off, which was very encouraging for her."
"We just need to make sure to create an environment that will keep her healthy during our preseason two-a-days and early-season tournaments. Amy can definitely help us when she's well. She is a tremendous server and a steady influence on the court."
The Eagles will also have sophomores Tyler Calles and Celeste Crosby to help in the back row during the 2011 season.
Calles played in 14 of 27 matches for EWU in 2010, tallying 40 total digs and five aces. Her best performance of the year came in a non-conference game at Idaho, where she registered a career-high 23 pickups, which was the best defensive performance for EWU in all four-set matches played during the season.
"Tyler does a great job of extending herself on the court," said Kydd. "She tore it up in the weight room this winter and is truly in the best shape of her life. We would like to see her become a more consistent passer, but her ability to cover the court makes her very valuable."
Crosby, who averaged 1.33 digs per set as a freshman in 2010, is in the midst of rehabbing a torn ACL suffered during the winter season. After undergoing surgery, she missed the six-week spring season, but has worked hard to be ready to get back on the court come fall.
"Celeste will be a few steps behind because she has to ease back in to full-fledged volleyball training," said Kydd. "But she is an important asset to us and we expect her to do everything she can to get back in the rotation quickly. She was definitely our best passer in serve receive last season, and we will need that from her again this year."
Eastern will be tested right off the bat, as it opens the 2011 campaign with a quality tournament on the west side of the state. EWU will face two familiar in-state rivals in Seattle and Washington State, as well as West Coast Conference school Santa Clara. The Broncos have been in the NCAA tournament seven of the last 10 years, including a Final Four appearance in 2005.
"We are excited about our season-opener," said Kydd. "Santa Clara is always a good team that consistently ranks in the top 25. Washington State is adjusting to a new coaching staff, but they have a lot of talent and play in the Pac 10 Conference, so we know they can compete. Seattle is returning basically the same group of players that beat us twice last year, so we are definitely looking for redemption in that matchup."
Following the tourney in Seattle, Eastern will return to Cheney for a rare early-season home match against Boise State on Aug. 31. Eastern has not had the privilege of playing a match at Reese Court prior to the start of conference play since the 2004 season.
"It is great to be able to play an early-season match at home," expressed Kydd. "We've only done it once since I have been at Eastern. It is really beneficial for our team, especially our new members, to play in a friendly environment before the pressure of conference."
Continuing its preparation for the Big Sky season, Eastern has two more tournaments lined up in early September. The Red and White will travel to Tucson, Ariz., for the Lodge on the Desert Wildcat Classic Sept. 2-3, before heading to Las Vegas, Nev., for the UNLV Invitational Sept. 9-10.
Eastern's lineup at Arizona includes the Wildcats, Cal State Fullerton and Presbyterian. While in Vegas, Eastern will face host-school UNLV, Cal State Northridge, and future Big Sky member Southern Utah.
"We will see a really good mix of mid-to-high level teams in our early-season tournaments," said Kydd. "With this lineup, we feel we can go in and be competitive in every match."
"Arizona is a strong team from the Pac-10 Conference, but they have a lot of freshmen on their roster this year, so we are confident with the matchup," added Kydd. "We will see several schools from California, which we know will be solid simply because of the quality of local talent they can recruit. We will also have an opportunity to preview one of our future conference opponents in Southern Utah. So we are definitely excited about the lineup."
Eastern will play four of its first six Big Sky matches at home in Cheney, Wash., including the conference openers against Weber State and Idaho State on Sept. 16 and 17, respectively. Eastern beat the Wildcats and Bengals at home during the 2010 season.
"It seems like almost every team in the conference lost at least one superstar," said Kydd. "The only team that didn't lose anyone major was Weber State, and they added a two-time NCAA Champion coach, so we definitely have to look out for Weber as the possible dark horse in the league this year."
The first conference road matches for EWU are at Montana State (Sept. 23) and Montana (Sept. 24), both of which are teams Eastern split the season series with last year.
Road matches will be crucial in Eastern's quest for a bid to the BSC Tournament. The Eags won only one road match during the 2010 campaign - a four-set victory at Idaho State. EWU also played in seven five-set matches during the 2010 Big Sky season, but only prevailed in one of those seven contests.
The Eags will play four-consecutive matches on the road during the month of October, before closing out the year with back-to-back weekends at home. Eastern plays Portland State on Nov. 12, and then hosts Sac State for Senior Night on Nov. 18. The 2011 Big Sky Conference Championship is scheduled for Nov. 25-26 in Portland, Ore., as the Vikings claimed the regular-season title a year ago.