Aug. 23, 2010
DAVIS, Calif. -
All-conference setter Carson Lowden, four-year starting libero Avreeta Singh and middle blocker-turned-outside hitter Tori Hooper played their final point for the UC Davis women's volleyball team at Pacific's Alex Spanos Center on the evening of November 21, 2009. The Aggies swept that match, completing their first 20-win season in 14 years. All three were seniors, competing in their final match.
And yet, according to third-year head coach Jamie Holmes, they're still a part of the program.
"Having the Aggies achieve that [20-win season] is really a stepping stone of what the expectations are and what we're building for in the years to come," said Holmes, who was selected as the Big West Conference's Co-Coach of the Year. "We had three seniors who led with strong vision and a lot of passion."
Most importantly to Holmes, the three seniors passed along the culture of leadership to the upcoming group of veterans. It is this legacy that gives the coach optimism for the upcoming season. "That's some strong stuff, and it's really launching us into the 2010 season."
Taking these leadership reins of the Aggie volleyball program are seniors Kayla Varney and Melanie Adams, juniors Betsy Sedlak and Katie Denny, and redshirt sophomore Kaitlyn Plum. With the exception of Sedlak, who transferred to UC Davis from Oregon prior to last season, the veteran group arrived at a UC Davis program that sat 274th in the Division I RPI. By the end of the 2009 season, the Aggies were 94th - a 180-place jump.
Such an improvement has primed the experienced crew to guide the team, according to Holmes. "They've been through the hard times when our program was going through a big cultural change," she said of her seniors. "They've seen the visions and they've seen people lead. They have high expectations of their senior year, and they've sacrificed their summers and their free time to be successful."
Varney, Sedlak and sophomore outside hitter Allison Whitson each garnered All-Big West Conference honorable mention in 2009, helping UC Davis finish in a tie for second in the tough league. Whitson led the Aggies with 370 kills, breaking the school record for freshmen (and thus earning a spot on the Big West's All-Freshman team). Varney finished second on the team in both kills (307) and digs (366), helping form the team's formidable serve-receive line along with Adams and Singh. In fact, Varney had the highest passing percentage of the three, committing just 22 receive errors in 708 attempts for a 96.9 percent success rate. Sedlak, who has been selected as a 2010 team co-captain with Adams, ranked second in the conference with 1.13 blocks per set (123 total).
Adams led UC Davis with 33 aces while finishing third on the team with 280 kills. She put up two of her best performances in the final weeks of 2009, posting career highs in kills (24) and attacks (51) against Cal Poly in the season's penultimate match, then hitting .400 in the season finale at Pacific.
Another vet, junior middle blocker Katie Denny, hit a solid .281 on 178 kills while ranking fourth in the Big West with 1.10 blocks per set. In fact, with Sedlak at 123, Denny at 118, Whitson at 80 and Adams at 69, UC Davis edged Cal State Northridge as the top blocking team in the league last year.
As such, Holmes expects the serve-receive and net play to serve as Aggie strengths in the upcoming year. "The next step for us is to continue being a team that can stay in system. He have to be able to side out at a high percentage. We have to be able to go point to point with our conference opponents. So we'll look to having a strong serve receive line. We spend a lot of time in serve-and-pass."
"I want our team to continue being physical at the net," Holmes added. "I want us to block balls like we did last year. That was definitely a strength of our team."
Of course, the departure of Lowden and Singh raises a few questions. After all, Lowden had started almost every match of her last three seasons, while Singh was the team's lone libero for all four seasons. Vying for Lowden's old spot are sophomore Lindsay Dowd, who led her Vision VBC 18 squad to the bronze medal at the 2009 Junior Olympics; and Jenny Woolway, a 5-foot-10 freshman from San Diego, who similarly paced her Encinitas Wave club.
"They're both working hard in practice and distinguishing themselves in various aspects of their games. One of those two will be a new face for the Aggies," said Holmes.
Giving chase to the libero jersey are Plum, who posted 182 digs as a defensive specialist last year; sophomore Caroline Mercado, who played for prep power Bishop O'Dowd and Golden Bear VBC; and Esther Hon, a senior walk-on who once set Mercy High's digs record. All three saw significant action at the position in Saturday's Blue-Gold intrasquad match.
Holmes' emphasis on leadership bears greater importance in the upcoming season, given the number of relative newcomers. Besides Woolway and Hon, the Aggies have four other first-year players. Outside hitter Morgan Borch is a three-time All-Diablo Foothill Athletic League honoree and Xceleration VBC alumna from Walnut Creek. Valerie Brain earned two All-Sierra League first-team nods for Glendora High, then helped the San Gabriel Elite Roshambo 17 squad to the bronze at the 2009 J.O.'s.
Middle blocker Victoria Lee is a relative newcomer to the sport, having only played three years of varsity ball and one year with ALCiS club. But she earned all-league distinction every year, and her unquestionable athleticism also boosted her play on the basketball court. Finally, 6-foot-2 Mary Schroeder hails from the same San Gabriel club team as Brain, while finishing second on her Flintridge Sacred Heart team with 310 kills as a senior.
Holmes credits her veteran players for embracing the new crop into the program. "They're doing a good job with our younger players at saying, `Hey, follow me. This is the way we do it. This is what we talk about. This is how we put on our shoes. This is how we focus at practice and take notes in our notebook.' We have good leadership, and it all started before they took over the reins. It's a legacy that every veteran should want to leave behind."
In an effort to inch its way toward a possible spot in the NCAA tournament, the Aggies have added a few more formidable opponents to the preseason slate, starting with the host Utes at the Utah Classic Friday. Utah, which went 17-12 in 2009, ranked second in the Mountain West Conference preseason polls and was among the team's receiving votes in the AVCA preseason national coaches poll.
Other key opponents in building the RPI include Texas State, which UC Davis will face at the SMU Doubletree Invitational on Sept. 3. The Bobcats went 22-13 overall last season, ending six spots behind the Aggies in the national RPI rolls. A day later, UC Davis takes on the host Mustangs. SMU posted a 19-12 record a year ago, finishing 73rd in the final RPI. Then on September 10, the Aggies head to Cal for the Hilton Garden Inn Classic. The Golden Bears finished No. 8 in last year's final AVCA Top 25, and checked in at No. 11 in the August 17 national preseason poll.
Another preseason highlight is the return of the Aggie Invitational. Last season, UC Davis was forced on the road for much of the early going as renovations continued at the Pavilion. This year, the Aggies bring in Oregon State, Cal Poly, Nevada and Portland for a five-team tournament on Sept. 17-18. This follows the annual Causeway Classic match at the Pavilion on Sept. 14.
The Aggies' open the 2010 season against host Utah at the Crimson Court on Friday. Match time is 6 p.m. Pacific.