Aug. 21, 1999
LOS ANGELES - The UCLA women's volleyball team appears poised to seriously contend for the 1999 Pac-10 title as UCLA returns all six starters and 14 letterwinners from a team which closed last season with wins in 13 of its final 16 matches.
"Certainly, we can compete for the Pac-10 Championship," said head coach Andy Banachowski, who is entering his 33rd season as Bruin head coach. "With all of our starters returning, we should be able to continue where we left off last season and move into the national picture."
The Bruins enter the 1999 season ranked No. 10 in the USA Today/AVCA coaches preseason poll and No. 10 in the Volleyball Magazine preseason top 20. In a poll of Pac-10 coaches, UCLA was picked for second in the conference and received the first-place nod from two of the league's nine other coaches.
"This is a hungry, enthusiastic group," noted Banachowski. "We've moved from being a young team last year to one that is emerging in skill levels and maturity this year. We have a lot of good athleticism on this team and players who hustle all of the time. I'm looking forward to taking this team into competition."
Junior Elisabeth Bachman returns as team captain for the second-straight year. Nicknamed "Wiz," Bachman was a first-team All-Pac-10 honoree last season as she finished 19th in the NCAA with a 1.52 blocks per game average. Her offensive skills are not to be ignored, however. Bachman is coming off a season in which she hit .368, the seventh-best season in program history.
"We're looking for her to dominate more in the Pac-10 as a hitter and blocker," said Banachowski. "She has developed as a potent attacker behind the setter, which has allowed us to spread out the offense."
After spending several weeks of the summer months with the U.S. team at the World University Games in Palma del Mallorica, Spain, Bachman will have added experience to draw on for the upcoming UCLA season.
Fellow junior Amy Nihipali may move from middle to the right side in 1999, but remains one of the team's top threats. She ranked second on the squad last season, behind Bachman, with 106 total blocks and has played 219 of the Bruins' 220 games in her two seasons.
"Amy is one of our two returning starters at this position," said Banachowski. "She is one of the reasons I'm not worried about our depth at middle blocker."
That depth is something Banachowski is very excited about . He will have two excellent players coming off the bench this season in senior Tamika Johnson and sophomore Angela Eckmier. Johnson started at middle blocker as a sophomore in 1997 and brings a big, physical presence to the court. Eckmier is a gym rat who loves to work hard in the weight room and is, according to Banachowski, the hardest hitter on the team. Also look for sophomore Danielle Ryba to contend for some time on the inside.
"Tamika will compete for a middle or right side spot," said Banachowski. "She sees the court very well and is looking to finish her career strong. Angela will push for a starting position at the middle position. Both Angela and Tamika had an excellent spring and were able to get in a lot of good training."
Last year's Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Kristee Porter looks to build upon her rookie campaign, one in which she led the conference and was fourth in the NCAA in kills at 5.54 per game. An excellent athlete, Porter competed last winter for the UCLA women's basketball team and, in the spring, finished third in the triple jump at both the Pac-10 and USA Junior National Championships. She will enter the 1999 season with a streak of 24-straight matches with at least 10 kills.
"Kristee became the go-to person during the 1998 season," noted Banachowski. "We only had her a couple of weeks in the spring as she was with the track team. She responds well to challenges and is certainly one of our top offensive threats."
Another sophomore, Ashley Bowles, is an extremely versatile player who will more than likely move to the left side this season. Last year, she was one of only two Bruins to start all 28 matches. Her solid passing skills and ability to play either the left or right side give the Bruin coaching staff a number of options.
"Ashley is a very intelligent attacker," said Banachowski. "She can set if needed, and we may train her some on that. However, I expect we'll concentrate on her at the outside. She also has an excellent jump serve."
Freshman Ella Harley is expected to contend for a starting slot, bringing experience in the middle, left or right side to the court. The coaching staff feels her best position may be on the right side, which would enable Harley to step in and replace the graduated Chaska Potter.
"Ella is very athletic and is a good blocker who jumps well," said Banachowski. "She also has good range on defense. The key will be how well she adjusts to the intensity of the college game."
As with the middles, the Bruins have a lot of depth on the outside. Among the top reserves will be freshman Lauren Fendrick, who can play either the left or right side, is expected to battle Harley for a starting spot. She is a very powerful attacker who spent the summer training with the U.S. national team.
Sophomore Celeste Peterson returns to the court after missing the 1998 season with a knee injury. She was an honorable mention Pac-10 freshman selection in 1997, earning a start in her first nine collegiate matches. Also keep an eye on freshman Stacy Millichap, who can also double as a defensive specialist. Millichap has excellent instincts and reading ability on the court, which will enable her to find spots on the open court for the attackers.
Rounding out the Bruin corps of outside hitters will be Lauren Hogan and Taylor Rodger. Hogan saw action in six matches a year ago, while Rodger was able to play in just five matches before suffering a season-ending ankle injury. Setting
Erica Selsor returns for her sophomore season in 1999 after a freshman campaign which saw her finish second in the Pac-10 and 19th in the NCAA in assists at 13.69 per game. More importantly, she has spent a full year learning the system and developed some of the experience that should allow the Bruins to expand the offense.
"Erica was everything we hoped for last year as a leader and setter," said Banachowski. "She became more confident and comfortable running the team. With her returning, we should be able to run more combinations this year and attack effectively with more people out of the back."
Competing for the backup setter position will be fellow sophomores Kate Dwyer and Jackie Levin. Dwyer ran the second team in practice all of last season, but is coming off a stress fracture in her back suffered during the winter. Levin got a sizeable number of reps during the spring and has great quickness. Outside hitter Ashley Bowles also can serve as setter in a pinch. Defense
A major key to the success of this year's team will be its play on defense. Banachowski feels he has one of the top defensive players around in junior Michelle Quon. Since missing the first three matches of 1997 due to injury, Quon has played in all 210 of the Bruins games.
"Michelle is an inspiration to her teammates with her hard work," said Banachowski. "She has proven to be the steadiest player on our team and is the best pure defensive player we've ever had."
Other players who could see back-row action include Levin and Millichap.
The Bruins open the 1999 season in the same locale as the hope to end the season: Honolulu, Hawaii, where UCLA will face Pittsburgh, Minnesota and the host Rainbow Wahine over Labor Day weekend. Hawaii will host this year's NCAA Final Four in mid-December. The next two weekends give the Bruins a different test, as they will play four matches over two days at the University of Denver followed by a two-day, three-match tournament at the Kent Invitational.
UCLA opens Pac-10 play on Fri., Sept. 24, when they host Arizona in Pauley Pavilion in a match which will also be televised live by Fox Sports Net. The Bruins will be featured two other times on Fox Sports Net as their matches at Washington State (Oct. 1) and Stanford (Nov. 5) are slated for broadcast. The regular season closes with a match at Pepperdine prior to the start of the NCAA Tournament.
"We have scheduled some tough competition early," said Banachowski. "We want to try and develop more as a team during the nonconference season and avoid playing with our backs against the wall like last season.
"Going to Kent and Denver give us a good opportunity to see more people as we'll be playing two matches a day. The Pac-10 is always a tough grind, plus we have Pepperdine at the end of the season, which will be a good test as we hopefully head into the postseason."