Aug. 18, 2008
As the UCLA women's volleyball team began training last winter, the Bruins had already set their team motto for the 2008 campaign: Quest to Be the Best. UCLA hopes that its Quest ends up at the Qwest ... the Qwest Center in Omaha. That is where the Bruins' season ended in 2006 with a National Semifinal loss to Nebraska. In 2008, UCLA looks to make a return trip to the Final Four with its sights set on winning a national title.
"We have some of the key members from the 2006 team back this year," said head coach Andy Banachowski, who begins his 42nd season at the helm of the Bruins. "But we've also graduated a few key players from that team. So we are different than we were two years ago, and we will have to rely on some of our new talent to help us reach our goals."
Among the new talent in Westwood is a recruiting class that was ranked fourth in the nation by Prep Volleyball and Volleyball Magazine. The group includes three big players in 6-foot-6 middle blocker Amanda Gil, 6-5 middle blocker Katie Camp and 6-4 outside hitter Sara Sage.
"We recruited big this year with Gil, Camp and Sage. In years past, we have been on the smallish side in the middle, so now we have the ability to be bigger and play bigger. Our entire freshman class are going to make a difference for us and will either earn their way into the starting lineup or push the players that are ahead of them."
The Bruins return 10 letterwinners and six of seven starters from last year's squad that recorded their ninth-straight 20-win season and reached the Regional Final for the fourth time in the last five years. It is a veteran squad with five returning seniors that will look to duplicate their efforts from their sophomore season of 2006.
Just two seasons removed from setting the best hitter in the nation, senior Nellie Spicer returns for her final year in Westwood. Spicer was a first-team AVCA and Volleyball Magazine All-American for the second year in a row after ranking third in the Pac-10 and 25th in the nation with 12.92 assists per game. Spicer enters the 2008 season with 4,697 assists, which is third in UCLA history. She is on pace to break Erika Selsor's school-record of 6,234 assists.
"It's great having a senior setter and one who I certainly feel is the best in the country," Banachowski said. "I'm very confident in our abilities to move the ball around and diversify our offense. That will be more incumbent on the hitters to carry their load and get us some kills. But we are in a good position having Nellie back for her senior year."
"Jazmin was our starting setter during the spring when Nellie was out and she improved quite a bit at that position. She is probably the next best leader at that position. Stephanie sets a great ball, but unfortunately has not had that much playing time. Alexa also gives us more depth and is going to be steady too, so we will be in good hands."
The outside hitter position was set to return intact with All-Pac-10 honorable mention selections Ali Daley and Kaitlin Sather coming back for their senior seasons. But that took a hit right before the start of fall practice, as Sather underwent surgery on a right biceps injury she suffered in the spring. She will be out of the lineup to start the season and there is no timetable for her return. At the outset, the Bruins will have to replace her team-leading 3.76 kills per game from a year ago to go along with 3.07 digs per game, which was fifth on the team.
"It's a tough situation regarding Kaitlin," Banachowski said. "She finished great playing on the right side last year and gave us great balance to our offense."
In Sather's absence, Daley will be looked upon heavily to step up on the outside. The senior was second on the team a year ago with 3.69 kpg and 3.66 dpg. Daley also led the Bruins with 39 aces and 23 double-doubles and was third with 94 total blocks. She became the first UCLA player since 2001 to post at least 20 kills and 20 digs in one match against Oregon State on Oct. 12.
"Ali feels great after coming off shoulder surgery during the summer. We'll see how she is once we get into practice, but she is expecting to play at full strength, which she wasn't able to do last year with her injury."
The Bruins were getting solid production from Emily Clements, who was averaging 2.39 kpg through the first eight matches before suffering a torn right ACL in the ninth contest that ended her season. Clements received a medical redshirt and will again be a sophomore heading into 2008.
"Emily feels really good," Banachowski said. "She was doing quite well during the spring and it will take her a little bit to get back in the swing of things, but she should hit her stride by the middle of the season."
A pair of freshmen turned sophomores are back in Dicey McGraw and Juliane Piggott. McGraw played in 32 of 34 matches and was fourth on the squad with 2.57 kpg. She had 11 double-figure kills contests and also recorded three double-doubles in earning honorable mention All-Pac-10 Freshman Team accolades. Piggott appeared in 25 matches a year ago and averaged 1.24 kpg and 15 service aces.
"Both of them are going to have more confidence this season having been through it for one year. I expect Dicey to have a good year. She was hot and cold a lot last year, but I think we will see a lot more of her being hot because she's got more experience and confidence in her shots. Juliane had a tough year health wise, but she made it through the season and played well in some spots. She is going to come in this year healthy and should get off to a good start and make a significant contribution."
"Laura's health is still pretty questionable," Banachowski said. "Her knee is fully recovered, but her shoulder still seems to be lacking some strength. Where she figures on the team is still up in the air and once we get into training we will see how well she can handle herself."
"Sage has the capability to play both the middle and the left and right sides. It's her size and presence that will help us take on a different look and bolster our attack, which will be one of our main goals this year. Eva is similar to Emily Clements in the fact that she is a left-handed right-side player. She is a good jumper and ball handler and I envision her turning into a good college player in the image of what Emily is developing into."
The middle blocker spot took the biggest hit of departures with the graduation of All-Pac-10 honorable mention selection Rachell Johnson and Meghan Schoen, as well as Elise Carstensen, who will forego her senior season because of a right shoulder injury.
However, the Bruins bring back their top blocks per game player from a year ago in sophomore Katie Mills. In her freshman campaign that saw her receive honorable mention All-Pac-10 Freshman Team plaudits, Mills was third among Pac-10 players and 31st in the country with 1.45 blocks per game.
"Blocking is certainly Katie's strength," Banachowski said. "She has a good instinct and knows how to get her hands across the net at the right time. The thing that will define Katie's progress is how effective she becomes as an attacker and our ability to use her as an offensive weapon."
Gil promises to make an immediate impact for the Bruins in the middle. Along with Camp, the duo have had a wealth of success at both the high school and club volleyball levels.
"Amanda is really good at both blocking and attacking and there are certain things that she does offensively that we will try and capitalize on quite a bit. She is really good at hitting behind the setter, which will allow us to vary our attack a little bit."
"Katie Camp needs a little more development to adjust to the speed of the collegiate game, which is typical of most freshman. She also is a really good attacker behind the setter. I see her cracking the lineup as she gets better at reading opposing setters and becoming a more effective blocker."
Defense was the strongest part for the Bruins in 2007, leading the Pac-10 and ranking 13th in the nation with 19.46 dpg. The total also set a UCLA single-season record for digs per game, eclipsing the previous mark by more than a dig and a half.
"I feel really confident about our abilities to play defense and dig the ball," Banachowski said. "Getting that many digs and being in that position is about how big your heart is as a team. We played with a lot of heart last year and we are going to have to recapture that again this year. Hopefully we will be able to block a few more balls and not have so many dig opportunities."
Returning in the backcourt for the Bruins are seniors Jade Machado and Jessica Fine, who traded off at the defensive specialist and libero positions last year. Fine led the Bruins with 3.75 dpg, which was eighth among Pac-10 players. She had two 30-dig matches as a junior, including 33 against Pepperdine which set a school record for digs in a four-game match.
Machado was the lone Bruin to play in all 34 matches last year. She was third on the team with 3.19 dpg and had 19 double-figure digs matches, including a career high 29 against Oregon State on Oct. 12.
"We are going to be solid with Jessica and Jade," Banachowski said. "They saved us in a lot of situations last year and they will be looked upon to do that again this year."
"If she is not setting, Jazmin can play at DS," Banachowski said. "She is going to be on the court somehow, because she became our toughest server this spring. Serving is going to become a big point of emphasis this year."
"Amber tried out for the team and we were really impressed with her abilities. Lainey is coming in as an outstanding defensive player and a steady passer, as is Nikki. We have the makings of having two squads of liberos and defensive specialists."
Every year brings rule changes to women's volleyball, but most are so subtle that fans don't notice. That won't be the case in 2008, with perhaps the biggest rule change being the switch to 25-point sets. It marks the third different scoring method in the last nine seasons. After switching from sideout scoring and 15-point games to rally scoring and 30-point games for the 2001 season, the NCAA moves to 25-point sets to mirror the international scoring method.
"The 25-point sets are going to give a different outlook to the matches," Banachowski said. "I'm disappointed that we have gone to a shorter game. It's cheating the fans of an opportunity to watch their favorite athletes play and compete a little bit more. But we'll get used to it. All teams will have to come out faster and play every point with a little bit more intensity."
In addition to the new scoring system, the term "game" has been replaced with "set", so matches will now be a best three-out-of-five sets. The fifth set will remain rally scoring to 15. Other rule changes include a limit of substitutions to 12 and a loosening of the double-hit call for setters.
The season kicks off in the paradise of Hawaii, but it will be all business once the Bruins take the floor. After opening against an Ohio squad on Aug. 29 which made the NCAA Tournament a year ago, the Bruins will face defending national champion Penn State on Aug. 30. One day later, UCLA takes on host Hawai'i (Aug. 31).
"It's a tough way to open the season, but it will be a good test right off the bat to find out where we are at," Banachowski said. "It's always tough playing Hawai'i in their place and Ohio is a great team in a mid-major conference. Playing Penn State is going to be a challenge, but we are looking forward to the opportunity of playing the defending champions."
After a midweek matchup at UC Riverside on Sept. 3, the Bruins head to Reno for the Nevada Tournament, where they will face the host Wolf Pack on Sept. 5 and D-I upstart Seattle University on Sept. 6. UCLA then faces two more Big West Conference schools on the road, traveling to Cal State Fullerton on Sept. 10 and Cal State Northridge on Sept. 16. Preseason tournament play concludes in Evanston, Ill., as the Bruins take part in the Northwestern Wildcat Classic, facing Virginia and Georgetown on Sept. 19 and the host Wildcats on Sept. 20.
With 11 away or neutral contests already under their belt, the Bruins have three more road matches to start off Pacific-10 Conference play, facing cross-town rival and NCAA semifinalist USC in the league opener on Sept. 26. A trip to the Oregon Schools concludes a season-opening 14-match road stretch, as UCLA visits Oregon on Oct. 3 and Oregon State on Oct. 4.
After a top-heavy road schedule to start off the season, the Bruins will enjoy the comfort of home for the second part of the year, playing 10 of their final 16 matches at Pauley Pavilion. The home slate begins on Oct. 10 against Washington and continues one night later against Washington State.
Following a road trip to the desert to face Arizona State (Oct. 17) and Arizona (Oct. 18), the Bruins return home for four in a row. The homestand opens up with a bang, as UCLA entertains NCAA semifinalist California on Oct. 24. Two days later, the Bruins host NCAA runner-up Stanford in the first of three live TV matches on Fox Sports Net. The four-game stand wraps up with contests against Oregon State (Oct. 31) and Oregon (Nov. 1).
The Bruins alternate road and home weekends over the final eight matches, traveling to Washington State (Nov. 7) and Washington (Nov. 9 on FSN) before returning home to face Arizona State on Nov. 14 and Arizona on Nov. 15. The final regular-season road trip takes the Bruins to the Bay Area, as they visit Stanford on Nov. 21 and California one night later.
The annual matchup with Pepperdine comes to Pauley Pavilion on Nov. 25 before the home finale against USC on Nov. 28, which will be aired live on FSN.
The postseason begins on Dec. 5 and 6 with the NCAA First and Second Rounds at campus sites and continues the following weekend at NCAA Regionals on Dec. 12 and 13. The final four teams converge on Omaha, Neb. on Dec. 18 for the NCAA Semifinals, with the national champion crowned on Dec. 20 at the Qwest Center.