UC Davis volleyball kicks off 2017 season in Vegas

Aug. 21, 2017

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DAVIS, Calif. - Some three weeks after reporting for the fall, UC Davis women's volleyball opens its 2017 season at the UNLV Invitational, armed with an experienced junior class, a sizable freshman group and a (mostly) new coaching staff. The Aggies take on Eastern Washington and host UNLV on Friday, then Binghampton for an 11:30 matinee on Saturday.

For head coach Dan Conners, the goals for the upcoming weekend are the goals for his entire season. "To reiterate what I told my team, I want us to grow individually and as a team every day throughout the season. I want this to be a learning weekend and a growth weekend. Being on a team and playing college sports means you have to sacrifice some things, maybe in your social life or otherwise. We will share in that sacrifice and be in it together. We'll be about each other.

"And the last thing is about staying on course, not letting distractions or bumps in the road taking us off path. That's my goal for the season, and for this weekend as well," said Conners, now entering his fourth year at the UC Davis helm.

UC Davis comes off a 14-15 overall record and a 7-9 mark in the Big West Conference in 2016. The team graduated three starters from last year's roster, namely setter Sophia Mar, middle blocker Aima Eichie and outside hitter Kendall Walbrecht. The 2016 team also battled its share of injuries throughout the year, which resulted in a silver lining for this year: the current sophomores and juniors gained extra opportunities for experience.

Junior MB Kelechi Ohiri enters her third year as a starter.
(Wayne Tilcock, AggiePhoto.com)

Among the returners, junior left-sider Emily Allen was the only player to start all 29 matches last year. She led the Aggies in kills (300) and total swings (971) on offense, fielded more serves than any other passer (691), and collected 245 digs on defense. Maddie Merlino platooned with Mar as part of the team's 6-2 system for the past two seasons, and looks even stronger heading into her junior season, according to Conners. Middle blocker Kelechi Ohiri, a fourth-year veteran of the program but a junior by athletics eligibility, enters her third year as a starter. She ranked second in the Big West Conference with 1.25 blocks per set while finishing eighth in hitting (.287). Ohiri earned Big West All-Freshman honors back in 2015.

Yet another junior, Emily Bolko, enters her third season at libero. She scooped up 474 and 404 digs in her first two years, respectively, needing just 122 more to become the ninth Aggie to surpass 1,000 in a career. Lauren Matias garnered All-Big West honorable mention and All-Freshman honors thanks to her 292 kills in 28 starts last season. Brianna Karsseboom, another member of the third-year Aggie class, enjoyed a breakout season with 221 kills in 2016. Additionally, Lauren Jackson (71 kills, .363 average) and Anna Donald (52 kills, 33 blocks) saw upticks in playing time as second-year program veterans last fall.

In addition to the returning players, Conners fields substantial experience among his new coaching staff. "We have 68 years of coaching experience between all of us," he said. "There is a very dry sense of humor among this staff, which has been great for me. It helps me keep my perspective. They get their work done and done well. It has been really nice having this group together. They really care about the job they do and the team."

Indeed, 2013 UC Davis alumnus Bryce Williams returned to his alma mater after stints at Northwestern, Montana, USA Volleyball and TCU. Nicole Miller owns nearly a full decade of collegiate coaching, mostly recently at Clemson. Add to this mix volunteer assistant Mike Buller and director of operations Amy Buchanan, and suddenly Conners finds himself surrounded by volleyball expertise.

Finally, UC Davis fields as large a rookie class of student-athletes as it does a first-year class of coaches. Setter Paloma Bowman (Vacaville, Calif./Five Starz VBC) and outside hitter Mahalia White (Canoga Park/Supernova All-Stars) will likely see significant playing time in this first weekend, as they are largely replacing outgoing seniors Mar and Walbrecht.

However, Conners sees the possibility of any of his six freshmen making contributions in 2017. Thus, Aggie fans should quickly learn the names Ruki Kennedy (West Covina/Long Beach VBC), Chelsea Maeglin (New York, N.Y./All-Star Empire VBC), Alexa Rockas (Gilbert, Ariz./AZ East Valley Juniors) and Leonie Strehl (Encino, Calif./LAVA South). Even if they don't impact the program immediately, each member of the class has the potential to contribute in the years to come.

With all the question marks of a new season, Conners is certain of one thing: anyone who watches his team will see an exciting and scrappy brand of volleyball. "This is a team that fights. Regardless if we're up by a lot, in a tie score, or down by a lot, you'll see a team that has a fighter mentality, and it doesn't go away no matter what the situation is."

ABOUT THE OPPONENTS: BINGHAMPTON, picked third in the preseason America East coaches' poll, went 13-14 with a 7-5 conference record in 2016... The Bearcats return three second-team all-league performers in Sarah Ngo (9.58 assists, 2.74 digs per set), Kristella Morina (.300 hitting, 0.97 blocks per set) and Gaby Alicea (2.41 kills per set, 37 aces)... EASTERN WASHINGTON returns senior starters Chloe Weber (2.15 kps, 0.85 bps) and Ashley Seiler (2.78 kps, 2.62 dps) from a team that went 13-13 overall and 8-8 in Big Sky play last year... Host UNLV went 24-8 with a 12-6 Mountain West Conference ledger, advancing to the second round of the NCAA tournament... The Rebels return starters Elsa Descamps (.310 average, 1.26 bps), Alexis Patterson (10.75 apg, .237 team hitting) and Ashley Owens (.267 hitting, 1.14 bps).

Nestled in a classic college town in Northern California, UC Davis ranked sixth nationally among public universities by the Wall Street Journal in 2016. Additionally, U.S. News & World Report rates the university No. 1 in such fields as plant science and animal science; while Forbes had UC Davis atop its list of "13 Most Important STEM Colleges for Women."