Young volleyball squad launches 2016 season

Aug. 22, 2016

DAVIS, Calif. - As the countdown to the start of the 2016 UC Davis women’s volleyball season reaches single-digit days, head coach Dan Conners faces one of his toughest opponents in his career at the Aggie helm: youth.


To be clear: the actual schedule presents its annual share of challenges – five teams that rate among the top 50 in the NCAA’s RPI rankings, eight opponents who won at least 21 matches last year. Last year’s Big West Conference champion, Hawai’i, ran the league table and reached the Elite Eight last December. This weekend’s field at the UND Classic is certainly no exception. Ole Miss, Omaha and host North Dakota went a combined 62-27 in 2015. 


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However, a quick perusal of the UC Davis roster reveals its characteristic. Of 18 players, only two – pin hitters Allie Wegener and Kendall Walbrecht – have lettered three seasons with the Aggies. Setter Sophia Mar gets an honorable mention, since the first of her three previous collegiate seasons came at UConn. Middle blocker Aima Eichie has two full seasons plus a redshirt year.


That leaves two redshirt sophomores, six true sophomores, two redshirt freshmen and four true freshmen for a total of eight combined active seasons among 14 student-athletes.


As such, Conners says the preseason of 13 straight road matches, with just one within the borders of California, will be invaluable. “With a young team, it’s good to get that experience so that when we get into conference, we know what to expect and how to manage that challenge.”


Fortunately, the experience level is relatively high for such a young group. Walbrecht earned All-Big West first-team distinction as a junior, posting 288 kills and 95 blocks. Wegener totaled 162 kills and 213 digs last year while serving as one of her team’s primary passers. 


Eichie battled injuries in her sophomore effort after claiming Big West All-Freshman accolades in 2014. Nonetheless, she ranked fifth in the conference and second among her teammates with 1.04 blocks per frame (95 total). Eichie also finished the year in strong fashion, hitting .476 with three blocks in the season’s penultimate match at UC Irvine. 


Mar joins Walbrecht as the only Aggie to have appeared in all 59 matches during the past two seasons. She split rotations with Maddie Merlino when Conners opted for a 6-2 system but handled primary setting duties when in a 5-1, resulting in 855 assists. As a team, UC Davis hit .219 in the 16 Big West matches.


The large sophomore class also enjoyed substantial experience last year. Libero Malia Bolko, opposite Nicola Moore and outside hitter Emily Allen each appeared in all 30 matches as true freshmen. Bolko finished third in the Big West Conference with 474 digs, or 4.16 per set, for the highest total by an Aggie freshman in almost a decade. Moore ranked third on the team with 180 kills while chipping in 71 blocks. Allen enjoyed a breakout in league play last year, with 55 of her 56 total kills taking place in the conference stretch. She had six matches with double-figure digs, including four straight to end the year. 


Another sophomore, Merlino played in all but one match last season, mostly as Mar’s counterpart in the 6-2. She finished with 376 assists and 136 digs in 94 sets.


Senior Kendall Walbrecht captured first-team All-Big West Conference honors in 2015.
(Wayne Tilcock, AggiePhoto.com)


Middle blocker Kelechi Ohiri wrote an early chapter in her volleyball success story in 2015. A relative late-bloomer to the sport – she never played prior to her sophomore year in high school – Ohiri redshirted the 2014 season to develop, then emerged as one of the league’s toughest net players last fall. She ranked second in the Big West in blocks (1.20 per set) and fourth in hitting (.333), earning her a spot on the conference’s All-Freshman squad. Ohiri also earned Big West Defensive Player of the Week for her 12-block performance against Cal Poly in the season finale, despite battling injuries that sidelined her four nine matches.


The Aggies graduated just two players last season, albeit productive ones. Outside hitter and two-time All-Big West Conference honoree Kaylin Squyres graduated with almost 1,200 career kills. Middle blocker Jillian Johnson sparked UC Davis both at the service line and at the net throughout her career, most memorably in a comeback against CSUN to start last year’s conference schedule.


Replacing Squyres’ offense will take the village, as Conners expects a more diverse attack. “I think we will have to get points from a wider range of players,” he said. “Our next two point-scorers were Kendall Walbrecht and Allie Wegener. Aima and Kelechi can score, and we’ll see if our other outside family can score more points.”


Allen’s late-season emergence also gives promise on the left side, as does the arrival of freshman Lauren Matias. A two-time All-Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League honoree, the 6-foot-2 alumna of Harbor High School and Main Beach VBC brings attacking upside that actually resembles Squyres at the same point in her career. 


In the middle, Eichie and Ohiri have battled offseason injuries, so expect support from the likes of Lauren Jackson and redshirt freshman Anna Donald, the latter of whom will also provide depth on the right side. Another newcomer to the MB corps is Jackie Graves, a member of last year’s National Division-winning Mavericks Volleyball Club at the USA Volleyball junior championship. Listed at 6-foot-4, Graves also becomes the tallest player in program history, per records dating back to 1989.


In the back row, Bolko has Heather Reed pushing her for the libero jersey. Formerly an all-state setter at Heritage High and Red Rock VBC, Reed’s defensive skills – 455 digs in her last two prep seasons – have allowed her to make the transition. Regardless of who takes the libero job, expect both to see plenty of action scooping up opposing serves and shots.


With all of the possible combinations and configurations allowed by a relatively versatile group, Conners looks to solidify the team roles early in the season – perhaps as soon as the season-opening weekend. Furthermore, he hopes his team can jell early in the year.


“Reflecting on my first two years, it took us until we got to conference before we hit our stride as a team,” Conners said. “I would like us to get to that place a little sooner. I don’t want to put pressure on us to do that, but I’d like to starting finding that bond. It doesn’t have to be with any specific personnel. We just want to be cohesive within the team.”


Having four tournaments in four different states will help the cause, as will an added emphasis on managing stress and anxiety in the preseason training. “Throughout the double days, we’ve had some ‘artificial adversity’ thrown out there by the coaching staff,” said Conners. “We put pressure on them to execute and we’ve let them know when they’re not executing. We’re setting a high bar in our expectations.


“There is natural stress when you compete. We’re learning how to manage that, and we prefer that process happens in practice rather than a match. We’re addressing some things before we start competing. Those conversations will help us be more cohesive early on and play at a higher level.”


SEASON NOTES
NEW STAFF: The youth on the roster is rivaled by the youth on the bench with Conners... Assistant coaches Katie Quinn and Jeff Schmitz begin their first seasons as collegiate coaches, while Bronson Oliveira enters his first year as director of operations... Quinn earned All-Big West Conference honorable mention in 2013 and 2014... According to Conners, her experience is invaluable in recruiting: “She has done an amazing job connecting with recruits, getting them on campus and sharing her experience with them.”... Schmitz played at UC Irvine for John Speraw, now the Team USA men’s coach and an assistant at UCLA during Conners’ playing days... “We played for the same coach and we see the game in the same way because of that,” Conners said of Schmitz... Oliveira came aboard in the late spring, replacing Jeff Wolf, who was the program’s first-ever ops director... Oddly, Oliveira is the lone member of Conners’ staff with past collegiate coaching experience: Ohio State men’s club and as an assistant at Pierce College... However, his role with the UC Davis volleyball leadership is (by rule) administrative.


SIZING UP THE OPPONENTS: Like UC Davis, OLE MISS (22-11, 8-10 SEC) has a freshman- and sophomore-laden roster... The lone senior, setter Aubrey Edie, ranks second in Rebel history with 3,527 career assists... NORTH DAKOTA (21-13, 9-7 Big Sky), ranked third in the Big Sky Conference preseason poll while garnering a pair of first-place votes... Middles Chelsea Moser (362 kills, .308 hitting, 0.99 bps) and Faith Dooley (367 kills, .316 hitting, 1.28 bps) each captured second-team all-conference nods in 2015... OMAHA (19-13, 12-4 Summit League) battled UC Davis to a five-set marathon last year, erasing a 2-0 match deficit before the Aggies settled down for a win in the fifth... Junior Sydney O’Shaughnessy (10.25 aps, 36 aces) was named among the Summit League’s Players to Watch.