2005 Volleyball Preview
June 28, 2005
The 2005 season can definitely be defined as a transitional year for the University of Northern Colorado volleyball team. On one hand, the Bears are without the services of three seniors who wrapped up their careers in 2004, including the program's all-time leader in kills, and will be looking for a new identity on the court. On the other hand, the year marks the team's last as a Division I Independent and the last of being ineligible for NCAA Tournament play before the program joins the Big Sky Conference in 2006. Those two major factors now collide as the Bears have one final chance to tune-up before becoming a full-fledged Division I program.
"Since we left Division II and started our progression towards Division I we have had a plan on how we would be ready for a conference," said Ron Alexander, who has compiled an amazing 88-14 record in three seasons as the Bears head coach. "Now that we know it is the Big Sky Conference we can keep making the right decisions. With a lot of conferences, they would not necessarily stand up to recruits, but the Big Sky is one everyone is proud to be a member of. We know that it is ambitious to win in that conference and the balance is solid, but we know the lofty goals we have set are the only ones we know how to set."
The Bears begin that transition with 10 returning players from last year's squad that was 25-9 overall and won 20-plus matches for the 22nd time (in 29 total seasons) in school history. Included in those returnees are a pair of starters, senior setter Corrine Chapin and junior middle blocker Lizzy Rhoads, as well as sophomore libero Abby Mayne. But the Bears will miss the trio of seniors who left the program a year ago, including Erin Deffenbaugh, arguably the greatest player in school history. She finished her career as the NCAA's all-time leader in attacks and ranked third in career kills; she holds virtually every offensive record in the UNC record book.
"Erin was the consummate professional in amateur athletics," Alexander added. "She bled blue and gold and worked harder and produced at a whole different level than people saw. She loved the pressure and was physically dynamic, and it is hard to get that whole package in a student-athlete. Although we will miss all those attributes about her, we will continue to recruit and get bigger and stronger and find a 6'2" Erin instead of an outside hitter who is 5'10."
The program also has holes to fill on the right side, with the loss of 1,000-kill club member Maggie Ledall, and at middle blocker, where Danelle Angus produced back-to-back seasons of 100-plus blocks in 2003 and 2004.
"We have 10 total people back and that provides us depth that we have been trying to build over the last three or four years," Alexander said. "We will not be affected by injuries or graduation nearly the same as we were at the Division II level. We are more athletic, bigger and more physical than we have ever been before. This should be the most physically gifted team I have ever coached; now we have to see if they can be fast maturing on the court and make up for the losses we have had. We had some holes to fill this spring and we got there, now we have to mold that again in the fall."
A lot of that responsibility will fall to Chapin, who had a tremendous season in 2004, her first year as the starting setter, in running the offense. Chapin amassed 1,683 assists (12.85/game) a year ago, the fourth-highest single-season total in school history, on her way to Division I Independent Setter of the Year honors. She was head and shoulders above all other D-I Independent setters, averaging 1.63 more assists/game than the next closest setter and winning the D-I Independent Setter of the Week award six times in the 10 total weeks it was awarded during the year. She had 18 matches of 50-plus assists and seven matches of 60-plus assists during the year, including a career-high 68 assists against rival South Dakota State at the D-I Independent Championships.
"The hardest thing to replace is a quality setter," Alexander said. "They have the ability to be the stabilizer on the court. Corrinne will need to work on delivering a better ball than she did last year until our new kids learn how to put the ball away. She will also need to learn how to involve all the players on the court. The bulk of the responsibility will fall to her, and the nice thing is that she can handle that.
"We will also have a more balanced offense than ever before," Alexander continued. "At the Division II level we were too one-dimensional. To succeed at the Division I level, you cannot just set to one outside hitter over-and-over and hope to win."
Without Deffenbaugh in the lineup anymore, the Bears will look to several players to provide that balanced offensive output, including senior Amanda Wiggins, who was second on the team in kills (3.73/game) as a sophomore before being hampered all season long with injuries. Wiggins suffered an abdominal muscle strain in the season-opener at New Mexico, missed the next six matches and never got in a real groove in finishing the season averaging only 0.68 kills/game.
In the middle, the Bears have a pair of defenders, Rhoads and sophomore Dani Veal, who are not only key to the Bears blocking game but who will also provide an offensive punch. Rhoads had a breakout season in 2004, registering 143 more kills and 91 more blocks than she did in her freshman campaign. Her 95 total blocks for the season were the second most on the team (behind Angus) and her 1.87 kills/game ranked fifth. Veal, who is also a member of the Northern Colorado basketball team, had 68 blocks a year ago and ranked right behind Rhoads in kills/game (1.33), as she got used to the collegiate game.
"Having a pair of bigger athletes like Dani and Lizzy has helped us to become more balanced," Alexander said. "As they continue to emerge, we should not be able to be stopped one-on-one on the court. If we can spread our athleticism out, we can be a threat against the bigger schools on our schedule."
Also in the offensive mix is junior Meredith (Klein) Alder, who spent the off-season getting married. Although she has only played in 37 matches in her first two years with the program, Alder is ready for a breakout season in 2005. A versatile athlete, Alder, whose mother was an All-American at Northern Colorado in 1981, has seen time at outside hitter, middle blocker and even libero in two years with the program. Her athleticism will be key in both finding her playing time on the court and helping the Bears fill the gaps left due to graduation.
"During our spring season, when Meredith contributed at an above average level, the entire team played dramatically better," Alexander said. "She relieves the burden from someone else with all the things she does well on the court."
The offensive side of things is rounded out by a trio of underclassmen. Redshirt freshman Lenay Goble sat out last season due to the Bears depth and that year of polish should help her be able to contribute right away this season. Goble is the sister of former Northern Colorado All-American Teale Goble, who ranks No. 2 in school history in kills and No. 3 in digs. Dulcie Stone redshirted during the 2003 season and saw limited time as a freshman a year ago. Sophomore Courtney Bourret played in only two matches last year and suffered a broken hand during the spring season that limited her playing time.
Defensively, Mayne returns to the libero spot she earned a year ago, thanks to hard work and a tenacious attitude. Mayne recorded 373 digs (3.06/game) in 2004, the third highest total on the team. Alongside Mayne is senior defensive specialist Amy Casselman, who has been a solid contributor in each of her first three seasons with the program. She has recorded 667 total digs (1.84/game) in her Northern Colorado career. Sophomore Jenny Kawakami, who saw limited action a year ago, rounds out the defensive specialists.
Five key newcomers dot the roster this season and each will look to try to crack the starting rotation as soon as possible. The class is buoyed by a pair of tall trees in Kenzie Shreeve (6'2) and Liz Franz (5'11); the pair give the Bears the needed size to compete with most Division I teams. Shreeve was a two-time all-state selection at Eagle Valley High while Franz was an honorable mention all-state selection her senior season after helping Heritage High to a 5A state semifinalist berth. Joining the tall trees is 5'7 outside hitter Natasha Jmaeff, the first Canadian to ever play for the Bears program. Although she does not have the size of a 6'0 outside hitter, she does possess a 30-inch vertical jump and was named the MVP of the 2004 British Columbia Provincial Championships (comparable to a state championship). Lauren Carter, the Douglas County High all-time leader in assists, enters the program and will be the backup for Chapin at setter. The class is rounded out by Iowan Sara Hawley, who will join Mayne, Casselman and Kawakami in the libero/defensive specialist role.
"We have learned some lessons over the past three or four years as far as recruiting goes," Alexander said. "It has to be people first and this group of kids are great people on and off the court. They are great athletes and great students and bring a wealth of high-level club experience to our program. The athletes we are bringing in this year and over the next few years have the potential to be some of the best to ever play for the program."
With a balance of solid returnees and talented newcomers, Alexander is not sure what to expect in the beginning.
"It could be any of the 16 kids that steps up for us and that is good and bad," Alexander said. "We have a lot of talented newcomers and that will help push our returning players; it could be a war in the gym. We will have to experiment early and see what works and get as many players in there as we can so they will have the opportunity to grow."
The Bears will learn which combination works best against a tough schedule that features four matches against teams that were in the 2004 NCAA Tournament (Colorado, Iona, Long Island and Wisconsin) and matches against in-state rivals Air Force, Colorado and Denver. The meeting with CU is the first between the teams in 24 years and the matchup with DU is the first in eight seasons. The Bears also host the Division I Independent Championships at Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion on Nov. 10-12. The three-day event brings all eight D-I Independents to town to compete for the championship in the sixth annual event.
"We want to be a force at the Division I level and to do that you have to play the best," Alexander said. "We have already proven that we are capable of being successful at the Division I level; now we want to advance our program by competing against some of the best volleyball programs in the nation. There are no gimmes on our schedule this year; we will have to work hard every night in order to win. And playing Colorado and Denver for the first time in awhile is great, as we want to get to the level where they want us on their schedule every season. Matches against other in-state teams are what volleyball fans in the state of Colorado want to see."
If the Bears are successful, they can claim the D-I Independent Championship on their home court as they end their run as an independent.
"We continue to take steps in the right direction," Alexander said. "We used last year as an experiment to see what is going to work at this level and we are taking it a step farther this year with a more difficult schedule to see what it takes to hang with a higher-caliber team. The Independent Championship is a good way to finish the season and it is fitting that in our last year of being independent we are getting to host. I think we know how to put on a volleyball event and hopefully it will end the right way."