2006 Volleyball Preview
June 25, 2006
When the days of Division II competition came to an end for the University of Northern Colorado three years ago, it was the volleyball program that was at the top of its game. In 2002, the program capped its Division II days with a regional championship and advanced to the NCAA Elite 8. That team lost only three times that season, climbed as high as No. 2 in the national rankings and produced the national player of the year.
Fast forward three years to 2006 and the volleyball program will get the first chance to showcase its skills in the postseason at the Division I level. Now a full-fledged member of the Big Sky Conference, volleyball was one of two Northern Colorado athletic programs (along with wrestling) fast tracked to be eligible a year prior to all other Bears programs. That means the program will not only compete for a Big Sky Championship in 2006, but if they win the Big Sky Tournament, they will be the first Northern Colorado program to compete in the NCAA postseason since 2002.
Making the move was the easy part, being ready to compete at the higher level took a little bit of work. Upon starting the reclassification process, the Bears won 32 matches in 2003 against a schedule that featured mostly Division II teams, and claimed the Division I Independent Championship. A year later that schedule featured mainly Division I teams and the program responded with a 25-win season. Last year the team played possibly the most ambitious schedule in school history and did so with a very young team. That resulted in a 14-16 overall record for first-year head coach Lyndsey Benson, who knows that is not where the program wants to be or where it will be in the future.
"We expect to win here at Northern Colorado," said Benson, who enters her second year with the program in 2006. "We will never be satisfied with a .500 record. We are taking the right steps. It does not happen overnight, but we certainly want to be on the fast track. Our expectation of winning does not change in the Big Sky or with top Division I teams. We are going to get there."
Benson was given the daunting task of taking over the team the day before practice began and just 18 days before the team's first match. That combined with the fact the team was very young led to a slow start.
"It took us awhile to get into a flow last year," Benson added. "We had a young team and the competition was tough, but by mid-season we were playing our best volleyball and beating some very good teams. The level of play was where we wanted it to be, that just did not always translate into wins. But this year it will be nice to have more than three days to prepare for the season. We will be ready in August."
This team will prepare with the benefit of having three starters and its libero returning, including a pair of seniors in middle blockers Lizzy Rhoads and Meredith Alder. Throw three other juniors into the mix and this year's edition of the Bears has the right mix of veterans and talented newcomers to make a run at the Big Sky Championship.
One of the team's strengths will be at the middle blocker position where Rhoads and Alder anchor down a spot that is not deep but is talented. The 6'2 Rhoads has been a mainstay in the Bears blocking efforts and entering her senior year needs only 17 block assists and 61 blocks to enter the program's career top 10 lists. Last season she was a first-team Division I All-Independent selection and her 125 block assists was the sixth-highest single-season total in school history. She was second on the Bears team in kills (2.90/game), hitting percentage (.239) and total points (395.5) as well. Her counterpart Alder had her best year in a Bears uniform last season, ranking fourth on the team in kills (2.15/game), second in aces (28) and blocks (0.77/game) and third in total points (290.5), more than quadrupling all of her previous season-high outputs. Freshman Kaley Hoover, who will also play basketball at Northern Colorado, will redshirt this season, but will practice with the squad and hopefully gain valuable experience from the seniors that she can take into the 2007 campaign.
"Having Lizzy and Meredith as returning starters in the middle will be key for us. The fact that they have been there and faced great competition is an advantage. Both are experienced and skilled enough to compete against anyone on our schedule. We do not have a lot of depth at middle blocker, but we except our seniors to carry the load for us. We need to be able to get them the ball in key situations. I would put them up against anyone in our conference and feel confident with that match-up any night."
Another strength of the team will be its overall defense. Anchoring the squad is 2005 Division I Independent Co-Defensive Player of the Year Abby Mayne. The junior is just 147 digs away from becoming the 18th member of the program's 1,000 Dig Club. She averaged 4.44 digs/game last season, including having double-digit digs in 24 of 30 matches and 20 or more digs nine different times during the season.
"Defense will likely be our greatest strength this season, whether that is at the middle blocker position or on our back row, and it starts with Abby," Benson said. "Abby is out there for 5 ½ rotations, she is great at serve receive, takes care of the easy balls and can make the big save too. Usually there is a weakness with a defensive specialist, but she does not have one."
Joining Mayne in the back row is junior returnee Jenny Kawakami and freshman Breanna VanDerMost. Kawakami has seen limited time in her first two seasons with the team but did see action in 15 sets last season as she earned herself more playing time. VanDerMost was an all-state selection in high school where she played both defensive specialist and outside hitter. She graduated as Rampart High School's all-time digs leader and was the captain of both her high school and club volleyball teams.
"Overall we have three defensive specialists that can play anywhere and we could likely use all three in the back row," Benson added. "Teams must have a hard time terminating on us for our squad to be successful. We have it branded in our minds that there is not a ball that we cannot dig. If that mindset continues this year, we are going to be a very tough team to score on. Defense has always been a strength of our program and that will continue this season."
An area that may turn into a strength for the Bears but is an unknown entering the season is setting. Gone is senior Corrinne Chapin who was a two-time Division I All-Independent selection and finished her career ranked sixth in school history in assists. Competing to replace Chapin is sophomore Lauren Carter and freshman Kristen Schevikhoven. As Chapin's backup, Carter saw action in only 27 sets last season, but did play effectively at the Division I Independent Championships when Chapin went done with an injury. Carter is also excellent defensively when in the lineup. Schevikhoven was both an All-Colorado and 5A all-state selection at Eaglecrest High School, where she led the Raptors to the state semifinals. She played club volleyball with the Front Range Volleyball Club, which was a five-time national qualifier while she was a member of the team. In 2006, she led her club team to a national AAU championship and was named MVP of the tournament.
"Setting will be a strength for us eventually," Benson said. "Lauren has shown that she is capable of being our starting setter and `Schevi' will look to come in and compete right away for the starting spot. I would feel comfortable with either of these setters leading our offense. They are both young, which means we have a great foundation to build on."
No matter which setter wins out the battle for the starting nod, they will need to develop an immediate chemistry and bond with a group of talented but inexperienced outside hitters. The group includes juniors Dani Veal and Dulcie Stone and sophomore Kenzie Shreeve. Veal has the most match experience, as she ranked third on the team in kills (2.48/game) last season and also contributed 0.52 blocks/game (fifth on the squad). She is, however, coming off surgery that may slow her progress at the beginning of the season. Stone has shown the most improvement of the trio, earning her first significant playing time last year and impressing the coaching staff with both her athleticism and her work ethic. Shreeve saw most of her action late in her freshman season, registering six kills against Utah Valley State at the Division I Independent Championships and showing good defensive ability and a very strong serve.
"We will enter the season inexperienced at outside hitter, but we will be very athletic, and we made huge strides in the spring at the position. Kenzie and Dulcie made tremendous strides in the offseason. They proved they could score against great competition, and Dani has proven herself with her power as a hitter. We plan to move them around a lot and not just let them hit a high outside ball to give them even more options."
That trio will play alongside sophomore Lenay Goble, who manned the right side hitting duties a year ago. After redshirting in 2004, Goble started 18 matches a year ago and was fifth in the team in kills (1.96/game) and sixth in blocks (43 total). Late in the season she became an effective scoring threat for the team, registering a career-high 16 kills in a match in late October.
"We do run a quick attack on the right side which is a great strength of our offense," Benson said. "We look to run our slide and score consistently over smaller blockers."
Although the returning players have a early advantage in the race for the front row attacking spots, a group of three newcomers will figure into the Bears plans at some point of the season. Freshmen Devon Crotteau, Allison Raguse and Taylor Smith each have good resumes entering their collegiate careers and each also have versatility. Crotteau will play strictly on the left side but Raguse and Smith could see action on the left, right or even in the middle in needed.
"We have some inexperience with our outsides, so there will be a battle for the starting position," Benson said. "We have a group of newcomers that each could be starters at any point of the season. After losing some quality seniors last season, we will have a different dynamic on the floor and may need to find different styles to play. We will look for different people to step up each night."
No matter which set of players rise above their competition to nab a starting position, they will need to be ready to face off with a tough schedule that does not give the team much time to rest. The team starts with a tournament at national-power Arizona, will travel across the country to compete in a tournament in North Carolina the second weekend and face off with a top 10 team in Wisconsin and a perennial NCAA Tournament squad in Wisconsin-Milwaukee before conference play begins.
"Our first three weekends will be tough but we should be able to get an estimate of where our team is immediately," Benson said. "It is good for us to play the top-level conference schools to see where we are as a program. We have some matches against our same-level competition too, and those will be must wins."
The Bears will then play the full 16-match Big Sky Schedule with the hopes of being one of the six teams that will qualify for the Big Sky Tournament, which will be held Nov. 16-18 at the regular season champion. Sacramento State and Eastern Washington have been the two powerhouse squads in the conference over the past nine years, as they have combined for all but one regular season and tournament championship over that time period.
"We are thrilled to be in the Big Sky Conference and think it is a great fit for us as far as volleyball competition is concerned," Benson said. "I think it is a conference where we can be competitive right away and I like how the schedule worked out for us this season. If we are playing our best volleyball in November, we will give ourselves a chance to win the Big Sky Tournament and reach our goal of playing in the NCAA Tournament."
Already a tremendous team at home, the Bears will get a chance to play this season in the newly renovated Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion. The 30-year old building went through a complete renovation this summer and will feature chairback seating, a new message and scoreboard center and sound system among other things when the season begins. The Bears, which had a 35-match home winning streak snapped at the end of last season, are 34-2 in the building over the last four seasons.
"It is a great recruiting tool to play in the newly renovated Butler-Hancock," Benson said. "I think our fans will enjoy all the new amenities while enjoying watching a high level of volleyball as well. Butler-Hancock has been a great place for us to play and we expect to continue that. Our team expects to go undefeated at home and we will never have a lower expectation than that which is great to walk into a match with that level of confidence."
Whatever transpires on the court this season, there is no doubt this is one of, if not the, most exciting times in the long and storied history of Northern Colorado volleyball.
"There is no place I would rather be than coaching right here," said Benson, who enters the year as the fourth youngest volleyball coach at the Division I level. "It is exciting that the transition is over for us, we are in a conference and eligible for the postseason. Last year was a good transition for me, as I got to see our needs to be successful in the Big Sky. I like where we stand going into this fall."