PREVIEW: Year of Experience for Young Bruins Points to Improved 2012 Volleyball Season
NEWBERG, Ore. - After starting four freshmen alongside two seniors in 2011, a still-young George Fox University women's volleyball squad should find that year's worth of experience to be of significant benefit as the Bruins approach the 2012 season with an eye toward climbing in the Northwest Conference standings.
The Bruins are coming off a 10-15 campaign that saw them tie Willamette University for seventh in the conference at 5-11. Gone from that squad are honorable mention All-NWC performers Patti Reeves, who set a new George Fox for career digs-per-set average of 5.48 as a two-year libero, and right-side hitter Stephanie Kerr, who led the team with 257 kills and was second with 53 blocks.
Long-time coach Steve Grant, whose 30-year record of 577-395 (.594) ranks him 14th in career wins among active NCAA Division III coaches and 22nd all-time in D-III, welcomes back 10 returning letter winners, but cautions that the Bruins should not be considered a veteran team by any means.
"We have only two seniors and two juniors," Grant notes, "so while we expect our sophomores to make significant contributions, this will still be a learning year for them. We hope last year's experience will carry over into overall improvement this season."
The Bruins return both middle blockers in 6-1 Tiffany Burk (So., Baker City, Ore. / Baker HS) and 5-10 Kylee Adderson (So., Medford, Ore. / St. Mary's HS). Burk led the team and ranked second in the conference in blocks per set (1.08) with a team-best .217 hitting percentage, while Adderson was second on the team in service aces (26) and third in blocks (42).
"No one has worked harder than Tiffany," observes Grant, "and she has made significant progress from last year. She can become a dominating force both offensively and defensively as she continues to improve. Kylee's knowledge of the game is growing as she is learning how to find holes and take pace off the ball on offense. Both of our middles have been impressive so far."
Behind the starters, 5-10 Jessie Vahalla (So., San Diego, Calif. / San Dieguito Academy) returns after posting three blocks in five matches in her first year. "Jessie is a hard worker who should see increased playing time in the middle as her experience level grows," observes Grant.
Leading the Bruins' offense will be outside hitter Erin Campbell (So., Covington, Wash. / Kentwood HS), who was fifth in the NWC in kills per set (2.90) while ranking second on the team in kills (249) and digs (281). "Erin jumps well and is hitting smarter," comments Grant. "She has learned how to take pace off the ball and is using blocks better, so we are expecting big things from her this year."
Betsy Wilhelm (Sr., West Linn, Ore. / West Linn HS), one of this year's team captains, returns as an outside hitter after ranking third on the team in kills (149), along with 182 digs, 24 aces and 23 blocks. Says Grant, "Betsy is solid and versatile, a fine defender as well as offensive threat, and we look for a fine senior season from her."
The team's other captain, Cassie Irwin (Sr., Vancouver, Wash. / Prairie HS) is a candidate to step in for Kerr on the right side after posting 138 kills, fourth on the team, and 29 blocks as a key reserve last year. States Grant, "Cassie is a great on-court leader who has come back stronger and quicker than ever. She is an excellent jumper with a variety of shots in her offensive arsenal, and we expect her to rise to the challenge this year."
Brooke Molloy (So., Graham, Wash. / Lake Tapps HS) and Kyla Keeler (So., Bothell, Wash. / Inglemoor HS) also return on offense, Keeler moving to the right-side hitter position this season. Molloy appeared in 11 matches as a rookie, with 27 kills, 55 digs, and eight blocks, while Keeler saw limited duty in three matches, recording her first kill and block.
"Brooke is equally adept on offense or defense and will definitely push for increased playing time this year," predicts Grant. "Kyla has good height but is behind the other sophomores due to her limited experience."
Offensive newcomers include Lucy Capron (Fr., Bow, Wash. / Burlington-Edison HS) and Brooke Sturdevant (Fr., Makawao, Hawai'i / Seabury Hall HS) on the outside and Abbey Cuddeford (Fr., Newberg, Ore. / Newberg HS) on the right side. Says Grant, "Lucy will challenge for a starting role; she has outstanding offensive court awareness and is an excellent passer. Brooke is a solid all-around player who hits well, finds the holes, and has a lot of club team experience as well. Abbey has probably been our most improved player since the start of practice."
A last-minute decision by Mackenzie Teigen, who averaged 5.88 assists per set as a freshman starter, to transfer to another school to pursue her pre-med major leaves the Bruins' setter position wide open. Two newcomers, Chelsea Brustad (Jr., Bremerton, Wash. / Olympic HS), a transfer from Olympic Community College in Washington, and Payton Shrum (Fr., Lynnwood, Wash. / Meadowdale HS) will vie for playing time .
"Chelsea is a hard worker who loves the game and has a high volleyball IQ," observes Grant. "Payton gives us a tall setter at 5-10 and her game appears to be blossoming. There is now a great opportunity for one of those two - or both - to step forward and really help us."
"It will be hard to replace Patti at libero; she had a knack for getting to everything," comments Grant, "but Chelsea Wilson (Jr., Ewa Beach, Hawai'i / Campbell HS) has stepped up big time. She has made some incredible plays in practice and should give us a solid libero in the back."
Wilson also spent time as a setter last year, averaging 3.50 assists per set while making 259 digs with 25 aces.
"A year's experience for so many freshman last year is obviously a benefit to us," admits Grant, "but there is still much for them to learn in order to take their game to the next level. I think we will be strong in the middle, though not deep. While Patti at libero is certainly a loss, I believe our passing will also be a strength; that was one area we really sought to improve in the off-season, and I think we've done that by improving our overall depth. We have versatility on offense, and I expect us to be more consistent and smarter in our offensive decisions."
Grant is also excited about his coaching staff, which is all-new this year. "Dustin Walker comes to us after an outstanding coaching career at McNary High in Keizer, Ore.," notes Grant. "I've known him for while and am happy to have him with us. Ali Toedtemeier will be our setters coach after performing in the that role well for us before graduating in 2009."
The Bruins' season gets under way Friday, Aug. 31, with a match at conference foe Pacific University (though not a conference match) at 5:00 p.m. in Forest Grove, Ore. Their first home game is Saturday, Sept. 1, a 1:00 p.m. afternoon contest against Occidental College from Los Angeles, Calif.
The schedule also features four matches in the Posada Royale Invitational at California Lutheran University, a non-conference home game with a strong Colorado College team, and 16 Northwest Conference contests.