Head coach Wade Benson looks to mix returning players and newcomers as Eagles strive to rediscover winning ways
For this year's edition of Eastern Washington Women's Volleyball, it's more about the journey than the destination. Although, with a strong core of returning players, an exciting group of newcomers and the return of former head coach Wade Benson, the destination might prove to be sweeter than anticipated.
"This year is more about learning how to win a conference championship," Benson said. "If we can get our players to understand what it's going to take to do what we're trying to do, which is to win a conference title and return to the NCAA Tournament, we'll be successful. The only question is how long it will take."
The Eagles return four starters and eight letter winners from last year's squad that suffered through a down season uncharacteristic of EWU's winning history. A familiar face can also be found on the sidelines as head coach Wade Benson returns to Eastern after leading the Eagles to three Big Sky titles during his previous tenure from 2000-06. While Benson is used to being on the winning side of things, he hopes to impart that winning mentality to this year's squad.
"We're definitely bringing in a lot of things that are new to this group of players," Benson said. "The attitude, the pace of practice, the system, and the training regimen are changes this group will need to adjust to. They've all definitely bought in and are ready to hit the ground running."
Senior setter Lindsay Niemeier and senior middle blocker Ashley Wright will captain this year's team as the two most experienced players on the roster. Wright saw time in 95 sets last season, averaging 1.15 digs per set, 0.88 kills per set and 0.49 blocks per set. Niemeier, the Eagles' starting setter in 2011, suffered a knee injury in Eastern's first match last year that sidelined her for the season. She had already notched a double-double with 30 assists and 10 digs through three sets before going down with an injury. Niemeier has a career average of 5.93 assists per set.
"Both Lindsay and Ashley are the epitome of what type of person we want in this program," Benson said. "They do things right both on and off the court. They've been through ups and downs at Eastern and have persevered, making them ideal choices to lead this team."
Also back are junior outside hitter Talia Fermantez and sophomore outside hitter Kellen Barfield, both of whom played more than 90 sets last season. Fermantez averaged 2.32 kills per set and 0.91 blocks per set while Barfield notched 1.42 kills per set and 0.84 blocks per set. Sophomore outside hitter Allie Schumacher, who paced the Eagles with an average of 2.63 kills per set, is back after a stellar freshman campaign that saw her set a school record for kills in a match with 35 against Northern Arizona on Nov. 1. She also averaged 1.89 digs per set. Junior Kelsey Julian is back on the right side of Eastern's attack after playing in 77 sets last year and averaging 1.51 kills per set and 0.66 digs per set.
Despite the number of quality players returning, Benson insists all positions are up for grabs.
"We have enough quality players to create competition in each spot," said Benson. "All of our positions are wide open. I'm happy to have the quality we do after such a quick recruiting period, but that's the way I want it. Nobody really has a spot guaranteed."
A group of 10 newcomers will look to push EWU's returning players for a spot on the court. A healthy mix of seasoned transfers and skilled freshman, the newcomers have the firepower to garner playing time right off the bat. Junior outside hitter Melissa Waelter comes to Eastern after two years at South Alabama where she started 49 of 50 matches, playing 180 total sets. She notched 12 double-doubles and finished with averages of 2.81 kills per set and 2.26 digs per set. Junior outside hitter Stanka Panic and junior setter Milica Nisavic join the Eagles after stellar two-year careers at Casper College in Casper, Wyo. They led their squad to a regional championship last year after finishing third in 2011. Panic earned All-America honors last season after averaging 2.95 kills and 3.4 digs per set. Nisavic was an NJCAA All-Region IX selection last year after averaging 8.63 assists and 2.0 digs per set.
"Our transfers will certainly add great depth and maturity to the team," Benson said. "I'm expecting them to come in and make an impact right away. If they do that, then we have the chance to be pretty good."
The Eagles will be pushed by a number of tough opponents in their nonconference schedule in preparation for a challenging Big Sky slate. Eastern opens its season at the Oregon Classic in Eugene, Ore., where it will take on NCAA runner-up Oregon along with Ohio and Bryant. The Cougar Challenge will see EWU face off against PAC-12 member Washington State before taking on South Dakota and Big XII member Texas Tech. The Eagles' final tune-up before league play comes in the USD Tournament in San Diego, Calif., where they will square off against UC Santa Barbara, West Coast Conference co-champion San Diego and NCAA Elite Eight participant USC.
"Simply put, I want us going up against the best," Benson said. "We need to find out what we have to do to be the best and to understand what we're lacking. These teams will attack us differently than our Big Sky opponents, helping to improve our training mentality and get us ready for league play. We might struggle, but if we take it the right way it will certainly be beneficial."
Learning how to win is the first step to becoming a winning team. While a tough schedule will not make it easy, the Eastern Washington women's volleyball team will look to make its 2013 campaign a successful one by figuring out what it takes to make winning a habit. With Benson's winning tradition, fans of Eastern should not be surprised when the Eagles figure it out sooner rather than later.