Eastern kicks off 2012 campaign this weekend with four matches in two days as part of the UniWyo Wyoming Invite in Laramie, Wyo.
The Eastern Washington University volleyball team heads into the 2012 season with a few unknowns. Which of its three freshman middles will step up to fill a starting role? Will the Eagles have a healthy defensive specialist to carry the load in the back row? After playing two years in a 6-2 offense, how will the blocking systems and hitting rotations be affected now with a 5-1 scheme?
Although these are all areas fifth-year head coach Miles Kydd and his staff have to work out in the early season, one thing is for sure. The Eagles have in place a core group of veteran leaders that can guide this team through the question marks into an incredible year in the newly expanded Big Sky Conference.
Eastern returns a total of nine letterwinners, which includes five starters from 2011. In addition, the Eagles have two returning redshirts and four newcomers.
“I can’t say enough good things about our juniors and seniors,” said Kydd. “It is no mystery why these players are our starters are also the ones with the highest GPAs on the team. This group of upperclassmen takes care of business.”
At the core of this group is a pair of senior outside hitters, who have already established themselves as two of the top players in the conference, but may be poised for their best seasons yet.
Cora Kellerman (La Conner, Wash.) returns after a stellar 2011 season that saw the 6-0 left side earn a spot on the esteemed All-Big Sky first team. As one of the top five hitters in the conference, who also averaged 2.83 digs per set, Kellerman was twice selected as a Big Sky Player of the Week during her junior campaign.
“Cora is definitely someone we will be leaning on to be our offensive catalyst,” said Kydd. “She is quick to the ball and jumps dynamically. But the real advantage with Cora is her versatility. We never have to take her off the floor because she is also one of our best passers. We can rely on her to do a lot of things, and her best matches are really the ones when she shows that variety.”
Shelby Puckett (Latah, Wash.) joins Kellerman as a returning conference all-star. Puckett was an All-Big Sky honorable mention selection in 2010 and earned a spot on the second team in 2011. A talented south paw, Puckett can hit from both the left and right sides, and like Kellerman, she has proved to be an asset on the defensive end as well.
Puckett averaged 3.01 kills, 2.27 digs and had the second-most service aces on the team last year with 28.
Although Puckett and Kellerman are the obvious threats on the outside, Eastern is certainly not lacking in other options. The Eagles have a total of seven outside hitters who are fighting for a spot in the rotation in 2012.
Junior Ashley Wright might have the best shot at securing one of the starting spots, as she has been on the floor for two years and is part of the strong upperclassmen contingent. Wright started 27 of 28 matches in 2011, averaging 1.58 kills and 0.45 blocks per set.
“Ashley obviously has a leg up in terms of experience,” said Kydd. “She has seen and been in a lot more situations than some of the other players. But in order for us to be better as a whole, we need to be able to score better from that left-side position, which falls on Ashley to be better.”
Sophomores Kelsey Julian, Kayla Randles and Britta Forsythe, along with freshman Allie Schumacher will also compete for minutes.
“Allie is definitely going to be in the mix this year,” said Kydd. “She is a good passer, she jumps well and has an easy arm swing. She has had a lot of success playing on the beach, so tactically, she understands the game.”
Heading into the 2012 season, Eastern had two seasoned setters ready to take the floor. But an unexpected injury late in the summer to senior Laney Brown has the Eagles looking at a new scheme to start the year.
The past two seasons, Brown and junior Lindsay Niemeier split setting duties as part of EWU’s 6-2 offense. But with Brown now on the injured list, Niemeier will have sole responsibility in the 5-1 rotation. This eliminates one extra hitter on the right side, and will require Niemeier to block in the front row.
“I fully believe either one of our setters is capable of running the offense,” said Kydd. “Whether it was Laney or Lindsay that went down, it didn’t matter in terms of straight-up setting. Obviously, our safety valve is gone and having just one setter in practice makes things more difficult, but I am confident we can make the adjustment.”
Brown could potentially return for the start of conference play, but for the time being, Eastern will have to adjust accordingly.
“In some ways, playing a 5-1 is easier,” said Kydd. “The setter is out there the entire time, and is more in tune with the rhythm of the game.”
Niemeier, who was the starter in all 28 matches in 2011, led the Big Sky Conference in double-doubles. She was also among the top three in the league for service aces, tallying 112 for an average of 0.30 per set.
“Lindsay did a great job last year playing defense and serving,” complimented Kydd. “She really took that area of her game to the next level. But I think something else that happened over the winter was her comfort level on the court. Lindsay is more relaxed now. She is calmer, and can just go out and deliver the ball.”
While Eastern enjoys the luxury of experience with its setters and outside hitters, the team is fairly green in terms of middle hitting and defensive specialists.
The Eagles have four middles this year, the oldest being a sophomore. Talia Fermantez, a native of Honolulu, Hawaii, played in 26 of 28 matches as a rookie in 2011. She had a noticeable impact throughout the season, but was especially strong in conference play, averaging 1.75 kills and 0.94 blocks per set. Behind veterans Kellerman and Puckett, Fermantez was the third-leading scorer on the team during the 2011 Big Sky season. But the sophomore still has a lot to learn as she continues to grow into her role as a leader on the team.
“Talia obviously has the most experience and is the most capable of our four middles right now,” said Kydd. “She definitely has the potential, but needs to raise her level of performance on and off the court to really own that leadership role. She needs to make the decision that she wants to be a leader, and then actually do it by example.”
The Eagles also have two redshirt-freshmen in Kellen Barfield and Rachel Morrow who will compete for a spot, as will true freshman Allison Schumacher.
“I think the work ethic that Allison will bring and her desire to be good will push all of the other players who have been here for a year.
“I hope none of our middles are coming in thinking they have it in the bag,” added Kydd. “There are four people vying for two positions. May the best woman win.”
Eastern has three defensive specialists on the roster this year, and while all three are skilled, each one is lacking in actual match experience.
Junior Celeste Crosby played as a freshman in 2010, but has been sidelined with injuries ever since. She got in for one rotation in one match last year, but spent most of the season on the bench recovering from a torn ACL. If she can get healthy and stay healthy, Crosby will be an important player for the Eagles.
“Celeste has the potential to be our best passer and best defender,” said Kydd. “But various injuries have left her with limited mobility. She was definitely the best in her class when she started here, but now hasn’t been on the court in nearly two years, so we will see.”
The Eagles will also look to freshman Serena Ah Choy, who joined the team following the 2011 fall season, but was able to practice and play with the squad throughout the spring.
“Serena can be a valuable asset to us - she just has to find the confidence,” said Kydd.
Freshman Ryann Ensrud (Puyallup, Wash.) is also expected to see the floor this year, as she comes to Eastern after a successful career at Puyallup High School. Ensrud was a back-to-back South Puget Sound League Honorable Mention selection and helped her team to a fifth-place finish at the 2011 4A state championship. Ensrud and fellow freshman Allie Schumacher were also teammates at Puyallup before coming to Eastern.
Perhaps the biggest unknown for the 2012 season is how the Eagles will handle the new conference schedule.
With the addition of North Dakota and Southern Utah to the league, Eastern will play a total of 20 conference matches. Instead of the Friday-Saturday schedule as used in years past, the Eagles will now play on Thursday-Saturday, with a few Monday matches in there as well to accommodate the new teams.
"With our schedule as compressed as it is now, our pre-conference tournaments become extremely important," said Kydd. "Once conference starts, there is really not much time to actually practice specific things. All the focus will be on game prep and scouting. We must be able take full advantage of the experiences in the early season."
The Eagles open the season Aug. 24-25 at the UniWyo Wyoming Invite, where they will play four matches in two days. The team then returns to the Inland Northwest for the Gonzaga Invitational Aug. 31 and Sept. 1, where the Eags will face UC Riverside, South Dakota State and Gonzaga.
The final tune up before conference is a tournament at Iowa State that features some of the toughest competition from the Big 12, Big 10 and Big East Conferences. EWU will see Iowa State, Iowa and Syracuse in the two-day event Sept. 7-8. Host Iowa State is coming off a 25-6 season that saw the Cyclones finish second in the Big 12 Conference and advance to the Elite 8 of the NCAA Division I Women's Volleyball Championship. Syracuse finished fourth out of 15 teams in the Big East Conference.
"We know we are going into the lion's den a little bit with the Iowa State tournament," said Kydd. "But we put ourselves in that situation on purpose. It's something we've done ever since I've been here even as an assistant coach. We go out and find tournaments with quality teams that are going to make us stretch. And hopefully, that experience carries over into conference."
The Big Sky season will commence for EWU on Sept. 13 with a road match at Sacramento State. The Eags make their Reese Court debut Monday, Sept. 17 against Portland State, before heading to the Montanas Sept. 20 and 22, which is a road trip EWU swept during the 2011 season.
The fans will get their first look at Southern Utah on Sept. 27, while North Dakota pays a visit to Cheney the following week.
With the addition of the two new teams, the Big Sky tournament field was increased for the 2012 season from four qualifiers to six. By virtue of winning the regular-season title last year, Northern Colorado will host the championship Nov. 23-24 in Greeley, Colo.
Big Sky Preview
Eastern was selected third in the 2012 Big Sky preseason coaches’ poll with 71 total points. The Eagles finished fourth last season with a 9-7 league record. Eastern made its 15th appearance in the last 16 years in the Big Sky Conference tournament, but was ousted in the semifinals by regular-season champion and eventual tournament champion Northern Colorado.
UNC was a near-unanimous pick to defend that title, as the Bears garnered 99 total points with nine of 10 first-place votes in this year’s preseason poll. Portland State was second with 88 points and one first-place tally, while newcomer North Dakota was right on the heels of EWU in fourth with 70 total points.
Last season, Eastern secured its spot in the postseason after sweeping the regular-season series with Montana, Montana State, Idaho State and Weber State, and splitting with Northern Arizona. But the Eagles struggled against the three teams that finished ahead of them, losing each duel against Northern Colorado, Portland State and Sac State.
In order to get back to the playoffs and make a deep run, Eastern will have to find a way to compete with the top dogs.
“I think it had a lot to do with our mindset,” said Kydd. “As I’ve said to our team before, the outcome of a match is often determined before the match even starts. Teams lose because they think they should win and teams lose because they think they should lose. Whether you have positive or negative expectations, neither of them really helps, you have to be able to just go out and play. I think if we can get rid of the expectation surrounding any given match, we will find ourselves in a position to beat any team.”
In addition to getting over the mental hurdle, Kydd also wants his team to focus on the concept of synergy.
“We have to be better as a group,” said Kydd. “We should always assume we’re going to see someone who has more talent. Player for player, there will be challenges against certain teams in this conference. So, what it really comes down to is our ability to perform as a cohesive team. It’s not the individuals that make a team - it is the sum of its parts.”