Tough tourney slate launches 2015 season

Aug. 25, 2015

DAVIS, Calif. - More than a year ago, when the UC Davis women's volleyball team reported for the fall of 2014, Dan Conners played every part of the brand-new head coach. He had just assembled his staff of assistant mere weeks before, and received his first peek at what cards he had been dealt for his first hand at the table.

As such, last season had a rocky start before the Aggies found their stride in league play. The team went on a 10-2 run to finish a surprising third in the tough Big West Conference, four places better than its spot in the preseason coaches' poll.

A year later, Conners has settled in. He underwent a full tour of the Big West battlefield, his first recruiting cycle at UC Davis, and a full spring season. Conners has a much better sense of his personnel, yet enters the upcoming season with plenty of unknowns on the immediate horizon. After all, although eight players return from the 2014 squad, only one -- all-conference outside hitter Kaylin Squyres -- has started more than one full season. Furthermore, the new crew features the eight true freshman for the largest first-year class in program history.

Despite the presence of eight newcomers, Conners has a sharper sense of his team's capabilities, of its strengths and weaknesses, and its likelihood of making a move in the league standings. That 2015 run begins on Friday, when the Aggies face Northern Iowa to kick off Colorado State's Rams Volleyball Classic. UC Davis will also take on 12th-ranked host CSU (Saturday) and Baylor (Sunday) in the three-day tournament.

"I think the group that is returning is quite a bit ahead of where we were last year," Conners said. "They know what to expect from the staff, what to expect from a training standpoint. We have a group of eight that knows what they're doing and what they're getting into.



Atop the list of returnees is Squyres, who captured All-Big West first-team distinction last year. She led the conference in both kills (441) and kills per set (4.12), becoming the first Aggie to average better than four per set since Kelly Gaudino put down 4.71 in 2003.

The senior from Rocklin leads five players who started at least 10 matches last season. Aima Eichie posted 115 blocks (1.07 per set) and a .270 average to earn Big West Conference All-Freshman accolades in 2014. Junior Allie Wegener started 26 matches to finish with 228 kills (2.24) and 274 digs (2.69) last year. Kendall Walbrecht provided support at the pins with 147 kills (1.44) and 88 blocks (0.86) as a sophomore. Sophia Mar claimed about half the setting reps as part of the Aggies' 6-2 system, totaling 507 assists.

However, the previous year's senior class left some key holes for Conners to fill. Middle blocker Katie Quinn had earned All-Big West honorable mention in each of her last two seasons, and finished fourth in school history with 336 career blocks. Valerie Brain made the transition from the left side to opposite in 2014, providing career bests in hitting (.200) and blocks (0.76 per set) in her final year. Another middle blocker, Victoria Lee, effectively sat out her entire senior year in a career that featured a school record in hitting percentage (.361). The departure of Megan Lancaster was felt down the final two weeks of last season. The two-year starting libero had provided 381 digs in each of her junior and senior years, stabilized the Aggie serve-receive corps, and provided invaluable leadership to last year's relatively inexperienced group. She suffered a season-ending injury with two matches remaining in 2014.

On top of this, but Eichie's return to her 2014 form will be slowed as she makes a full recovery from her offseason leg injury. She will play in her home state this weekend, says Conners, but she continues to work her way back to full strength. Thus, second-year coach foresees several new faces to get significant action right out of the gates.

Kelechi Ohiri, one of last year's redshirts, has emerged as a formidable player in the middle for 2015. "Kel has positioned herself to be a starter," said Conners. "She is our most efficient attacking middle right now. She's getting better at blocking and seeing the game much better." Freshman Lauren Jackson will also see immediate playing time to start her first season. Jackson, an All-Southern Section pick at Troy High School, helped TStreet Volleyball Club to the Open Division title at the USA Junior Nationals this summer.

Filling the void left by Lancaster will be Malia Bolko, who will assume the role of starting libero before attending her first class at UC Davis. The Benicia, California native helped St. Patrick-St. Vincent High to 114 wins and a North Coast Section banner during her prep career, while boosting Xceleration Volleyball Club to three Junior Nationals berths during the summer.

Yet another true freshman, Nicole Moore, will take over for Brain on the right side. The tallest of the newcomer crew at 6-foot-3, Moore was a relative latecomer to volleyball who starred for South Eugene High (Oregon) and the Webfoot Juniors club team. Finally, setter Maddie Merlino, a two-time All-Capital Athletic League honoree and a Sacramento Bee All-Metro selection, will become Mar's setting counterpart in the Aggies' 6-2 system.

Thus, UC Davis has five new players virtually guaranteed time in the rotation for the opening weekend. The other first-year players -- outside hitters Brianna Karsseboom (Alameda/Bishop O'Dowd HS) and Emily Allen (Santa Barbara/San Marcos HS), opposite Anna Donald (Sacramento/St. Francis HS), defensive specialists Heather Reed (Brentwood/Heritage HS) and Katie Campbell (Dana Point/Dana Hills HS) -- could be summoned into action at any point.

"Half the team is brand-new. There will be a learning curve for them all season some of them will have to play and learn faster than others," Conners said.

UC Davis checked in at No. 5 in this year's Big West preseason poll, although just three votes behind No. 4 CSUN and six off No. 3 UC Santa Barbara. The first tourney provides a tough lineup of opponents, if the 2014 final RPI is any guide. Northern Iowa finished 79th (21-11 record), host Colorado State was 13th (31-3) and Baylor ended at 68th (14-17). In comparison, the top three RPIs in the Big West Conference belonged to Long Beach State (No. 28), Hawai'i (No. 32) and CSUN (No. 46). Such a slate will give Conners and his Aggie squad an indicator of where they stand in relation to the larger goal of moving up the conference ladder.

"Hopefully, we get a couple of wins and expose a couple of things we need to get better at," said Conners. "That's why we put the schedule together the way we did. The team is aware that if we want to be at the top of the conference and go to the [NCAA] tournament, we need to know what level we need to play at. These are three really solid, experienced opponents that are going to test us in every facet."

Friday's opener against UNI takes place at 2:30 p.m. Pacific.

NOTES: Including two redshirt freshmen -- MB Kelechi Ohiri and DS Katie Campbell -- the 2015 volleyball team's 10 total rookies surpasses the nine (five true freshman, four redshirt freshmen) sported by the 2005 Aggies... Another new arrival will not wear a jersey: Liz Towne-Gilbert has joined the staff as a volunteer assistant... A former Davis High and UC Santa Barbara standout, Towne-Gilbert provides a decade of collegiate coaching experience, including associate head coach positions at USC and Big West leaguemate UCSB... Senior OH Kaylin Squyres is the lone two-year starter heading into the 2015 season... She enters her final season with 706 career kills, putting her in position to become the ninth player in Aggie history to surpass 1,000 for a career.

UNI checked in at No. 3 in the Missouri Valley Conference advance poll, with MH Kayla Haneline (338 kills, 106 blocks) earning preseason all-conference honors... Colorado State enters the year at No. 12 nationally, No. 1 in the Mountain West Conference, with MWC Preseason Player of the Year Adrianna Culbert (267 kills, .312 hitting, 355 digs) and senior libero Jaimie Colaizzi (468 digs, 23 aces) headlining the returners... Senior OH Andie Malloy represented Baylor on the Big 12 preseason squad... She led the Bears with 447 kills, 29 aces and 348 digs in 2014... Saturday's match against the host Rams (9:30 a.m. PDT) will stream on the Mountain West Network at