Cheney, Wash. – A wealth of talent at every position combined with a trio of determined senior leaders have the Eastern Washington volleyball program ready to make its 2014 campaign a memorable one.
The year will not be without its challenges, however, as the Eagles welcome 10 new faces to the program in addition to the announcement that head coach Wade Benson will take an indefinite leave of absence to fully regain his health after undergoing cancer treatments this past spring.
Associate head coach Michael King will lead the team in Benson's absence but expects no drop-off after spending coaching stints with Benson during EWU's glory years in the late 1990's and early 2000's.
"Wade and I have a history of about 20 years together," said King. "It's been a really easy transition to step in and work with these young ladies. I had the opportunity to come in last spring and work with Wade on setting a tone for the program going forward. Having worked with Wade in the past, it's been easy because we're very similar in our coaching styles and how we create a culture within the team. It's been a seamless transition."
Seniors Kelsey Julian, Talia Fermantez and Melissa Waelter have embraced their roles as leaders both vocally and by example and are poised for big seasons. Julian was arguably the team's best player during Big Sky matches last year while Fermantez has been a mainstay in the middle since she arrived in Cheney in 2011.
Waelter saw her debut season in Cheney cut short with an injury after transferring from South Alabama in 2012. Now fully healthy, she will be counted on to contribute after averaging 2.33 kills per set and 2.11 digs per set in 17 matches last year.
"Our three seniors are growing everyday," King said. "They're growing by building relationships with the newcomers and the coaching staff. Kelsey has a great work ethic and is someone the new players can look to as an example. I think Melissa is really starting to shine in her approach to the game, and Talia's maturity is a crucial component to our roster. All three are becoming great mentors to our younger players."
The Eagles return a total of eight letter winners from last year's squad, including junior outside hitter Allie Schumacher, who earned Honorable Mention All-Big Sky honors a season ago after averaging 2.72 kills per set and 1.82 digs per set.
Also back is defensive specialist Ryann Ensrud, who started a majority of the Eagles' matches at libero, averaging a team-best 3.37 digs per set along with 21 service aces.
"Allie is starting to refine her skill set and has taken a major step in becoming one of the team's leaders," said King. "She's gotten more vocal and has become more self-disciplined. Ryann has a tremendous work ethic and is extremely coachable. She's able to process input and get better right away. She's starting to become a player that we can count on day in and day out."
Junior Kellen Barfield and sophomores Sophie Miller and Kylie Curtis round out EWU's returning players. Barfield, the tallest player on this year's team, and Curtis will look to find spots in Eastern's crowded outside hitter rotation while Miller continues her transition to the right side of the court after spending her freshman season as the team's back-up setter.
"There's no question that their experience counts for a lot," said King. "Sophie's work ethic is second to none, and she's either going to be the first player off the bench or will find her way into the starting lineup. Kylie and Kellen are both right there in the mix. That's one of the great things about our program right now. There's just so much depth, and everybody has to compete on a daily basis."
A massive recruiting effort saw the addition of 10 new talented players to the program, giving King and his staff a number of difficult decisions to make at every position.
Junior college All-American Ana Jakovljevic joins the Eagles after two standout seasons at Northwest College where she led her team to a Region IX Tournament title and an eighth-place finish at the NJCAA National Tournament last year.
"We have tremendous depth at outside. Many of our right side players can play left, and many of our left side players can play right. Melissa and Allie are continuing to strengthen their respective skill sets finding ways to score more points for us. Ana is a nice addition and another player that is challenging for a starting spot. She's learning how to compete on a daily basis and her work ethic is improving every day."
While Fermantez is a veritable lock in the starting rotation at middle blocker, four freshmen will push her for playing time. King is particularly high on Arizona native Chloe Weber, who brings an incredible athleticism and mentality to the team.
"Chloe has just been tremendous," said King. "She's very self-disciplined and always has a smile on her face. If something goes wrong, she just smiles, brushes it off her shoulder and goes into the next play. She also has great jumping ability and has been putting a lot of pressure on the other middles for what will happen with our starting rotation."
Freshman Nicole Rigoni brings an impressive pedigree at the setter position, earning First Team All-State honors from The Oregonian as a senior and an invitation to train with USA Volleyball. With King contemplating running a 6-2 formation, she could see a fair amount of time on the court along with junior Milica Nisavic, who redshirted last season after transferring from Casper College.
"Nicole and Milica are battling it out every day," King said. "They are both great setters and can both put hitters in rhythm. Milica has a slight advantage over Nicole after spending a year with the program last season which allowed her to gain a better understanding of our hitters' tendencies. Nicole is learning those things, but that's not an easy process. It's very similar to a true freshman quarterback in terms of how quickly she can learn the playbook."
EWU brought in a pair of defensive specialists in the offseason in talented freshmen Ashlee Vaoifi and Sara Mackin while King expects freshman Megan LaFond to split time as libero and outside hitter. The trio will battle Ensrud for playing time as the Eagles' primary defensive specialist.
"Ryann is the one that is the most consistent on a daily basis," said King. "Some of our other liberos will have slightly better days but also inconsistent days. We know what we're going to get from Ryann every single day because of her work ethic. Her experience is one of those things that put her above the bar. Ashlee has the right attitude and mentality, and Megan is one that is going to be right there, knocking on the door ready to take an opportunity if someone has an off day."
Prior to announcing his indefinite leave of absence, Benson put together a challenging slate of matches in what has become the norm for EWU since his return to Cheney a season ago. The Eagles will square off with six teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year including preseason No. 3 Stanford, No. 14 San Diego and No. 15 Missouri.
Eastern starts its campaign with a weeklong road swing in the Carolinas before tournaments at Idaho and San Diego round out its nonconference schedule.
"We'll face some quality opponents during our trip to the East Coast," said King. "There is some very good volleyball that's played over there, and it will be a good measuring stick for us before two tough tournaments in Idaho and San Diego. Our expectation in those matches is to win and make every ball and every play better. I want every opponent we play to give us their absolute best and for us to do that in return."
EWU was picked seventh by the league's coaches in the Big Sky Preseason Poll and will have to navigate a grueling conference schedule to qualify for the eight-team Big Sky Tournament.
The return of Idaho to the Big Sky brought about the creation of two divisions of six teams each. A member of the North Division, Eastern has been grouped with Idaho, Montana, Montana State, North Dakota and Northern Colorado. The revamped structure has created a new seeding system for the Big Sky Tournament that sees the team with the best overall record receive the top seed while the other division's winner is the No. 2 seed. The third through eighth seeds will be filled by the six teams with the best records regardless of division.
"I think the Big Sky is a much tougher conference than people give it credit for," said King. "I believe the parity in this conference is very solid. Anybody on any given night could get a win. There have been many programs that have won the conference in its history, so it's really a year-to-year basis. It's hard to say where we belong right now because I believe we can be a very tough team."
With a wealth of talented depth and a trio of seniors ready to lead the charge, fans of EWU Volleyball can expect to see the Eagles back on top of the Big Sky sooner rather than later.