June 30, 1998
LOS ANGELES -- Winning hand in hand.
Building on the foundation put in place by some of the greatest teams in collegiate volleyball history, the 1998 UCLA women's volleyball squad looks to continue the Bruin tradition of "winning hand in hand" in its quest for a run at a record seventh national title. A balanced combination of highly touted recruits united with a crop of talented veterans, positions UCLA as one of the year's elite volleyball programs yet again.
The unifying factor throughout the history of UCLA volleyball is Hall of Fame head coach Andy Banachowski. Entering his 32nd year as the Bruins' mentor, Banachowski has amassed more wins than any collegiate women's coach and owns a career record of 829-188. He has guided UCLA to six national titles, nine conference championships and a remarkable 29 post-season appearances. Under his charge, 17 different players have earned collegiate All-America status, winning the award an astonishing 29 times. Perhaps even more impressive are the volleyball careers which continue to flourish after their time at UCLA. Former Bruins dominate the professional beach scene and are prominent in USVBA competition, on the National Team and in the coaching ranks.
In its quest to maintain the tradition of success and in the process soften the departure of three very talented seniors from last year's squad, the UCLA coaching staff has gathered yet another edition of one of the nation's top recruiting classes. Entering UCLA in the fall of 1998 are four Volleyball Fab 50 selections in Ashley Bowles, Angela Eckmier, Kristee Porter and Erika Selsor. Lost to graduation are setter Kim Coleman and outside hitters Tanisha Larkin and Kara Milling.
Although these three have completed their collegiate playing career's they have passed on the UCLA traditions they inherited, added lasting impressions of their own and will forever be Bruins. A 1997 All-American, Milling used last season to etch her name into the UCLA record books in several offensive categories. Her 623 kills was the third-highest UCLA single-season total ever as she also moved into second place in single-season total attacks with 1,343. Along with leading the Bruins in kills, total attacks and service aces, she also became only the seventh player in school history to record 30-plus kills in a single match when she drilled 34 in a win over Cal Oct. 3. Her exceptional 1997 season earned her an invitation back to Colorado, where she is currently training with the U.S. National Team. Coleman, a 1997 All-District and Pac-10 Honorable Mention Selection, ranks third all time at UCLA in career assists with 3,400. She established herself as one of the best setters in the country last season and led the nation in assist average. In addition, her 1,646 assists place her third all-time at UCLA on the single-season chart. Finally, in Larkin, the Bruins lose one of its most explosive players ever. Second on the team in kills last season with 378, Larkin's leaping ability gave the Bruins a powerful outside hitting threat. She was rewarded for a solid '97 season by earning Pac-10 Honorable Mention accolades.
A key to the Bruins' success this season, middle blocking is UCLA's strongest and deepest area. The Bruins receive an added boost with the return of Elisabeth Bachman (Lakeville, MN), who sat out the entire 1997 season recovering from a wrist injury suffered at last summer's World University Games. The team leader in blocks with 132, including 18 solo, as a true freshman in 1996, Bachman will anchor UCLA's middle attack as one of the nation's premier players at this position. She will gain added experience this summer after again training with the National Team. Assisting Bachman at the net will be two talented returnees in Tamika Johnson (Indianapolis, IN) and Amy Nihipali (Anaheim, CA). UCLA's leader in solo blocks last season with 33, Johnson could see time at middle blocker or opposite hitter, as one of the most versatile and powerful athletes on the squad. Nihipali, who became the second freshman in as many years to lead the team in blocking, registered a team-high 139 (20 solo) last season and enters '98 as one of the nation's most experienced true sophomores in this category. Joining forces with this experienced trio will be freshman Angela Eckmier (North Hills, CA), a two-time Los Angeles Times All-Region selection and Volleyball Fab 50 honoree who could step in and make an immediate impact. "Technically, she may be the best blocker we have," says Banachowski. "Her blocking is intense, she has strong desire to make the play and prides herself on blocking the ball." Another freshman, Danielle Ryba (Palos Verdes Estates, CA), will add even more depth to a very solid area in the lineup.
The hitting positions sustained considerable losses from last year's 17-13 overall squad following the graduation of All-American Milling and All-Pac-10 honoree Larkin. Fortunately, with a group of talented returnees and a fresh group of highly rated newcomers, coach Banachowski won't have to look far for reliable replacements. Leading the way in '98 will be returnees Chaska Potter (Santa Cruz, CA), Jennifer Wittenburg (Houston, TX) and Celeste Peterson (Boca Raton, FL). All three possess different styles which should pose problems for opponents when trying to stop the Bruins' offensive attack. Potter has one of the most complete and well-rounded games on the team and is looking to get back to the form she had in 1995 when she earned Pac-10 All-Freshmen honors. Playing only 30 games during 12 matches last season, due to a nagging injury, she recorded solid outings against Cal and UCSB early on and saw action in both of UCLA's tournament matches. With Wittenburg, the Bruins add another dimension to the outside hitting game in terms of power. At 6-2, her ability to overpower would be blockers at the net should pay dividends. She was a member of UCLA's top-ranked recruiting class in '96 and is eager to comeback after redshirting last season. Returning starter Peterson, a Pac-10 All-Freshman Honorable Mention selection last year, will have to fight to remain in the starting lineup as she underwent knee surgery in the spring and will need additional time to regain her form. With an all around complete game, Banachowski says "if she is healthy, she's got the potential to be outstanding."
Two newcomers that could see significant playing time outside, are Ashley Bowles (Manhattan Beach, CA) and Kristee Porter (Tyler, TX). Bowles, listed as among the top recruits in the nation by several publications, has been referred to by Banachowski as, "the most complete player in this year's class, with outstanding skills." Considered one of the top athletes in the nation, Porter will be a dual-sport athlete for UCLA, playing volleyball in the fall and competing in track & field in the spring. "Kristee is the most exciting of our new recruits and has tremendous leaping ability," says Banachowski. Three others with the potential to contribute as hitters are returnee Suzy Morris (Sacramento, CA) and newcomers Taylor Rodger (San Diego, CA) and Lauren Hogan (Long Beach, CA). In an effort to keep the three talented middle blockers on the court, Johnson could also be utilized at the opposite slot, should Banachowski need added help at this position.
The Bruins enter '98 with a new set of hands running the offense from the setter position due to the graduation of two-year starter Coleman. Leading the list of candidates is freshman Erika Selsor (Linden, CA). A high school All-American regarded by many as the top setter in the country last year, Selsor is projected to be the opening day starter when the Bruins take the court against Hawai'i in early September. Posing a contrast in style from the 6-foot-1 Coleman, Selsor, at 5-foot-6, breaks the trend of tall Bruin setters dating back to the days when All-American Holly McPeak led the team in 1990. However, as was the case with McPeak, what is lacking in height is compensated for through experience, as Selsor is the most seasoned of the rookie class and has already led her high school team to two state championships and seen significant Junior Olympic competition. "We are expecting her to lead the team and step into the starting role," says Banachowski. "She has great experience and is a great competitor."
Though she will see most of her time at the outside hitter position, Bowles' all-around game makes her the No. 2 setter behind Selsor. In high school, Bowles saw action at every position and is one of the most versatile newcomers on the team. Behind Bowles will be newcomer Kate Dwyer (Laguna Beach, CA). Also adding depth in the setter slot is Jackie Levin (Novato, CA), who joined the squad for spring workouts.
A change in the way that substitutions will be counted this season will enhance Banachowski's opportunities to make use of defensive specialists. Though only a sophomore, UCLA returns one of the best defensive specialists in the country in Michelle Quon (Dana Point, CA). A key element in the Bruins' transition game, Quon's speed and quickness enable her to make the spectacular play, and get to the hard to reach balls. She was rewarded for her outstanding defensive skills last season by being named Pac-10 All-Freshman Honorable Mention. Lending a hand to Quon with backcourt duties and providing a spark from the bench will be returnee Mandi Lawson (Manhattan Beach, CA) who saw action in 41 games last season and will be counted on heavily for her defensive skills. Newcomers Rodger and Levin, could also contribute in this area with either passing or defense.
With 12 of this season's opponents ranked in the final 1997 USA Today / AVCA top 25, UCLA's 1998 campaign is arguably one of the toughest and most rigorous schedules in collegiate volleyball. In an effort to get most of the traveling out of the way prior to the start of school on Oct. 1, coach Andy Banachowski has scheduled a very challenging early season schedule. In fact, the Bruins start out with eight straight matches on the road and don't return to Pauley Pavilion until a match with Oregon on Sept. 25. UCLA begins action in early September with its annual trip to Hawaii for the Rainbow Wahine Volleyball Classic. The Bruins open the tournament with No. 25 Hawaii, then take on 1997 Final Four participant Florida, before rounding out the tournament with No. 15 Ohio State. Following its match with the Buckeyes, UCLA heads to Illinois for the 1998 Chicago Challenge. There, the Bruins face 1997 NCAA finalist Penn State and will take on either No. 10 Texas or Illinois. The Bruins begin Pac-10 play on Sept. 18 in the Bay Area with Cal and 1998 NCAA Champion Stanford. Getting most of its non-conference competition out of the way early, UCLA has only two non-league games throughout the regular season as it hosts No. 6 UC Santa Barbara midway through the year and No. 25 Pepperdine in its final regular season match.
"This is a heavy schedule," remarked Banachowski. "We have always scheduled tough competition to make us better and this year's slate is indicative of that. Our later start academically allows us to play on the road alot early on because we are not in class yet. This gives us the opportunity to find out about ourselves early in the season."