Aug. 29, 2008
As the Eastern Washington University volleyball squad returns every single starter and 10 of 12 letterwinners, the Eagles are looking to improve on its successful 2007 season with a breakthrough 2008 campaign. With the core of the team returning in addition to an outstanding freshman class, this campaign will be an exciting one for the Eagles.
"This group realizes they really have an opportunity right now, this year, to do something special," head coach Miles Kydd said. "You see that in practice; they get out there and get after it. They will do whatever it takes."
Kydd may be starting his first year as a head coach in the NCAA Division I ranks, but he is very familiar with the Eagles. He has spent the past four years as an assistant coach with the team and also brings to the position several years of experience at the international and collegiate levels from his native Canada.
Joining him on the coaching staff is Lisa Westlake, a highly-respected mind in the sport of volleyball, and Wes Walker, who has worked with the Eagles the past couple years as a volunteer assistant coach.
The team is coming off a sensational 2007 campaign which saw the Eagles rally from a 1-9 start to go 14-6 the rest of the way (three of those six losses came to Sacramento State, a team that would advance to the second round of the NCAA Championship).
The Eagles went 12-4 in Big Sky Conference matches to finish third, its 12th-straight year placing in the top three of the league standings. A comeback 3-2 win in the Big Sky quarterfinals, the team's ninth rally from a sets deficit in 2007, moved the team to the semifinal round for the 11th consecutive campaign. Incredibly, the squad finished a perfect 7-0 in five-set contests.
This year's team consists of a mix of experience and youth, as it will be comprised of two seniors, four juniors, four sophomores and six freshmen.
The setter position will be deep for the Eagles, as both Amanda Yausie and Ashley Hamilton return, and freshman Laney Brown will also compete for playing time.
The two returners split setting duties last year with Yausie playing in 89 sets (averaging 8.76 assists per set) and Hamilton taking part in 70 stanzas (7.77 assists per set).
Impressively, both were on pace to be ranked in the top 10 in the Big Sky, but Hamilton had not played the required 75 percent of Eastern's sets in order to be listed (she saw action in 63 percent of the stanzas, 70 of 112). Yausie placed seventh in the league, while Hamilton would have been 10th.
"Amanda understands how to create favorable situations for the team, and she is a great defensive player and a good server," Kydd said. "Ashley is a good blocker with great hands and can beat you with her physicality."
Brown enters Eastern with impressive high school accolades, as the Waterville (Wash.) High School graduate was named to the Associated Press 2B All-State Second Team and was honored as a Co-Most Valuable Player of the North Central League.
"Laney is very intuitive, a great athlete," Kydd said. "She can rise to the challenges not only as an athlete, but as a competitor.
"We're strong in the setter position, and we have high expectations for that position. It will be a strength of our team; we have three unique personalities, three unique skill sets, and as a group we have got it covered. With the three of them combined, we are better as a unit than we are as individuals."
The outside hitter position will consist of some of the best players on the squad, as four talented players return from last year and two gifted newcomers will be added to the mix.
"As a group, we're very physical in this position," Kydd said. "Our outside hitters are comparable with anybody, and all high-level volleyball comes down to what your outside hitters do."
In 2007, Hayley Hills was one of two players to be unanimously named first team All-Big Sky, after she recorded the third-highest kill average in the league, 4.38.
"Hayley carried a big chunk of our offense last year, and we expect her to do the same the remainder of her time here," Kydd said. "Her learning curve is really steep this year because we're putting her in situations she hasn't been in before, but by the middle of the season she is going to be better than she was last year."
Alysha Cook earned a spot on the All-Big Sky second team after she had 2.90 kills and 0.73 blocks per stanza last year.
"Alysha is a big physical player for us," Kydd said. "We expect her to be a big part of our offense this year, even more than last year. She is one of our fiercest competitors and is very consistent."
Chelsea Ross posted some incredible numbers, recording double-digit kill totals 10 times before suffering a season-ending knee injury on Oct. 25.
"Chelsea is recovering from her injury, but she is an intelligent player who will find a way to get a kill where somebody else wouldn't and can also play back row for us, passing and serving," Kydd said. "She can really add to our team this year."
Last season, Jacque Brown played extremely well when called on to replace an injured Ross on the court, including hitting .400 (11-1-25) in a four-set win over Montana State.
"Jacque is a great athlete and one of the quickest players on the team," Kydd said. "She finished last year well, and we expect her to pick up where she left off and be even better this year."
Cora Kellerman will also bring her skill set to the outside hitter position. She earned All-State accolades and helped her high school team to successive state titles.
"Cora is a great athlete and will be a real key player for our team over the course of her career here," Kydd said. "She's a great athlete and a great person; her teammates love her. Right now, she's just adding value to her team."
Brielle Menegazzi arrives in Cheney with some impressive high school credentials, earning Montana A All-State accolades and helping lead her squad to a state title as a junior.
"Brielle brings a lot of energy to our practices," Kydd said. "She's fearless and will crash through plate glass to get to the ball. That wouldn't be a problem for her."
The middle blocking position will be comprised of a pair of experienced Eagles and a couple of newcomers.
Both Allison Reinstein and Chenoa Coviare were stabilizing forces in the middle last year.
Reinstein also played at a high level in 2007, as her 0.91 blocks per set average ranked highly in the NCAA Division I ranks.
"Allison has raised her game, and we are expecting big things out of her this year," Kydd said. "She has worked hard and really has been one of our best players over our first three weeks of practice."
Coviare had some simply spectacular matches in 2007, including hitting at a spectacular .750 clip (17-2-20) in a 3-2 win over Colgate. She also had 1.04 blocks per set.
"Chenoa is a physical player in our team in terms of her presence," Kydd said. "The thing for her is her consistency - last year she would hit .600 one match and .120 the next. We need her to be more consistent."
Freshman Emily Bekkering helped lead her high school squad to a Saskatchewan provincial championship and figures to contribute significantly to the middle blocking position.
"Emily is great," Kydd said. "She needs to get stronger physically, but she so badly wants to be good. She is very inquisitive and is constantly self-evaluating her performance.
"As a group, we're going to be much better in the middle than we were last year. The returning players (Reinstein and Coviare) are another year older, another year wiser and understand better the demands of the position and how it fits into the team concept."
Returning Big Sky Libero of the Year Mandy Daniels will serve as a steadying force in the back row, as she enters the 2008 campaign with a career average of 4.32 digs per set, on pace to easily set a school record. She smashed the school mark for digs per set in a season last year with 4.81.
"Mandy is the rock, anchor and foundation to what we're trying to do as a team," Kydd said. "She is by far the best passer in the conference, which allows us to initiate our offense successfully most of the time. She's obviously a good defensive player, and her serve is going to be better this year."
Joining her in the back this season will be JaNae Mortensen, Lindsey Petroni and Amy VanderWel.
Mortensen played well in back all year, as she contributed double-digit dig sums on six occasions. She set her personal high of 16 in a road contest against eventual Big Sky champion Sacramento State on Oct. 13.
"She is a great passer and server, and we're working on her defense to match those two," Kydd said. "We're asking JaNae to get out of her comfort zone right now, so it's been a little bit of a challenge for her. If she improves defensively, there's no reason for her not to be on the floor."
Petroni served as starting libero for a 4A state champion Mead High School squad the past two years. The most recent title was the school's fifth in a row.
"Lindsey is fearless and every day she comes to practice and works hard, going for every ball," Kydd said. "The sky's the limit for what she is going to bring to our team over the course of her career. She has improved so much over the first three weeks of practice."
VanderWel is also coming off an outstanding high school career, which she wrapped up with KingCo 4A Conference first team honors and a state tournament appearance.
"Amy is a great server; she can really pick apart a team with a funky serve you don't see very often," Kydd said. "She's a quiet competitor who does not say a lot; she just goes out and does it.
"We are very deep at this position. All four of them can come in and play. I don't have any fear about putting one of them in and knowing they can do the job."
The Eagles will face challenging competition this season to help prepare the squad for the Big Sky schedule and its expected participation in the NCAA Championship.
Within the team's first nine matches of 2008, the Eagles will face off with six squads who finished last year's campaign ranked in the top 100 of the official RPI ratings as released by the NCAA. Two of those squads enter the season highly ranked in the preseason AVCA Top 25 poll (No. 11 Oregon and 17th-ranked Colorado State).
"These are teams we want to match up against, that we aspire to be, so we need to find out what we need to do to play at that level," Kydd said. "Our main emphasis is to do well against these teams, not just compete. We want to go there and prove we belong and put ourselves in a position to improve our performances in conference and postseason play."
One of Eastern's three non-conference tournaments takes place just 80 miles to the south in Moscow, Idaho, where the Eagles will take on Idaho for fifth straight year, Washington State for just the second time since 1994 and a well-revered name in college athletics in Notre Dame.
In the Big Sky, the preseason favorite is Portland State, which earned the No. 1 seed at last year's Championship. In the title contest, the Vikings fell to Sacramento State, who was picked second in the 2008 preseason poll. Last year, the Hornets possessed the fourth-highest RPI of any team on EWU's 2008 schedule at 55.
The Eagles will have a stretch in mid-October when the team will face arguably its three-biggest rivals, two at home and the third just 15 miles away. After playing host to Portland State on Oct. 10, the Eagles make the short trip to Gonzaga for an Oct. 13 contest. Following that match is a visit from six-time defending Big Sky champion Sacramento State on Oct. 18.
The regular season will conclude with road contests against perennial Big Sky powers Portland State and Sacramento State. The Vikings will then play host to the Big Sky Championship over Thanksgiving weekend.