|2012 volleyball guide online|
The Idaho volleyball team is coming off its most successful season since joining the Western Athletic Conference, as the Vandals finished second in the WAC in 2011, advanced to their second-straight WAC semifinal, and had a program-best six players and coach Debbie Buchanan earn WAC postseason honors. But Buchanan, the reigning WAC Coach of the Year, expects even more out of the 2012 squad.
With five of Idaho's starting seven from 2011 returning, and five seniors on the roster, Buchanan believes 2012 presents the biggest window of opportunity the Vandals have seen in recent memory.
"Our expectations are high considering we have a large group of returnees coming back," Buchanan said. "We're going to have five seniors and we need to push to win. These kids have been working out really hard. We're going to be better than we were last year. We've got some great incoming kids who are going to add to that and we're going to push to win a championship."
The Vandals lost a pair of senior starters, outside hitter Alicia Milo and libero Cassie Hamilton, but bring back five seniors and four players who earned all-WAC honors in 2011. Two-time first-team all-WAC pick Allison Walker-Baker returns as a junior in 2012, while 2011 second-team all-WAC selections Jenny Feicht and Alex Sele, along with WAC all-freshman teamer Alyssa Schultz also return.
Idaho's non-conference schedule should be good preparation for WAC play. The Vandals open the season with the Idaho Nike Invitational at home as they host Washington State, Pacific and Montana.
"It's going to be a tough tournament," Buchanan said. "Washington State is going to be good, Pacific is going to be good and Montana is going to be better as well. It's a great way for us to get things started."
After that it's two straight weeks on the road, with matches against Cal Poly, UC Santa Barbara, Northeastern, Cal State Northridge, UCLA, Hawai'i and San Diego State before the Vandals return home to open WAC play in mid-September.
"We're going to have a good variety, it's a good mix," Buchanan said of Idaho's non-conference schedule. "It's going to be a competitive schedule. There are some tough teams in there, and there are also some teams that we need to compete with."
Idaho's 18-match conference schedule features home-and-home series' with WAC-newcomers Denver, Seattle, Texas State, Texas Arlington and Texas San Antonio along with traditional conference foes New Mexico State, Utah State, San Jose State and Louisiana Tech.
One of the most exciting players in the WAC, Walker-Baker returns at outside hitter to lead Idaho's offensive attack. However, it's the second left-side spot, left vacant by 2011 first-team all-WAC pick Milo, that Buchanan says leaves the biggest question mark heading into the season.
"The biggest question is who's going to fill Milo's spot and fill her shoes," Buchanan said. "Being able to have low errors and consistency to fill into that spot next to Allison, if we can fill that, and it's solid, that really scales everything up a bit."
That competition will feature some young talent. Sophomore Jessica Hastriter is in the mix for that spot, and after seeing limited action in 2011 Buchanan said Hastriter could be ready to take on a larger role.
"Jess has definitely made huge strides, and she's one that's going to compete for that," Buchanan said of Hastriter. "She's been here, she wants to play and her skills are getting better all the way around."
She will be pushed by one, if not two, newcomers for that role. Katelyn Peterson, a freshman from Fairfield, Idaho, and a proven winner as a three-time high school state champion, has high expectations coming into the season. Another freshman, Jenna Ellis, the 2011 Idaho Gatorade Player of the Year, could also compete for the spot if she isn't inserted as defensive specialist.
"Katelyn has got some good-ball control skills, she just doesn't have the same experience as Jess," Buchanan said. "Then you have Jenna (Ellis) who could potentially be that kid if we needed her to. It's just a matter of where our needs are the biggest. Do we need to have Jenna competing in the back row and our outsides, Katelyn and Jess are holding in there, or is it that we need someone else with ball control? That's really what it's going to come down to."
On the right side junior Ashley Christman will battle senior Julia Church for a starting role. Church has started every match at the position for the last two seasons. Christman, however, has shown that she's ready to push for that job.
"Ashley has improved a ton," Buchanan said. "It was fun to see her develop over the spring. She's really starting to blossom a little bit. She's starting to make defensive moves and she's starting to stay in there a bit and become more aggressive and feisty, and she wants to play."
One position that doesn't have any question marks is middle blocker. Sele and Schultz each earned WAC honors after 2011, and Buchanan expects them to have an even bigger impact in 2012.
"Both of our middles, they're going to be so much better," Buchanan said of the improvement they've made. "It's going to be fun. If we can pass the ball and our setters really push the middles, it's going to be hard for people to stop them. Both of them are getting stronger. This is definitely the quickest and most offensive our middles have been. They can block. They're a good tandem. They can both go behind on one foot. For that purpose they can do a lot more for us than our middles in the past."
Add junior transfer Taylor Wilkinson, who spent the spring with Idaho, into the mix, and Buchanan is excited about the depth at the position.
"It's awesome that she was able to come in January, she's made huge strides in the time that she's been here," Buchanan said of Wilkinson. "It's probably the most solid we've been as far as three middles and the depth at that position."
A pair of senior setters, Feicht and Ryann Carter, will again battle for the starting gig, and this year redshirt-freshman Meredith Coba will also be in the conversation. Feicht edged out Carter in 2010 as the team's primary starter, and last season the job went back and forth between the two before Feicht secured the spot the final six weeks of the season. Buchanan said this year's battle will also come down to which setter can get the middles involved and run the offense efficiently.
"Last year we had Ryann and Jenny battling it out, and I think it's going to be the same thing this year," Buchanan said. "Both of them are going to be seniors, both of them have experience. It's going to come down to which one can come out and run the offense and make sure we're pushing the middles and balancing things the best. It's great to have three kids in that position. We know that we have some depth. We know that in practice we're going to have two sides and both sides are going to be experienced and that will make it more competitive."
With the loss of Cassie Hamilton, who climbed all the way to second on Idaho's career digs list, coming up just 10 shy of the school record in 2011, the battle for libero will come down to senior Janelle Chow and incoming freshman Jenna Ellis. Chow has experience on her side, having played in 83 matches and accumulating 535 digs through her first three years at Idaho. Meanwhile, Ellis is a highly touted newcomer who Buchanan says will be hard to keep off the court in some capacity.
"Janelle has been doing some great things," Buchanan said of Chow. "She's quick, she can make plays on the court. She's doing the little things, and she's made some improvements on the defensive side.
"Jenna is all over the place," Buchanan added. "There's a reason that she was the Gatorade player of the year for Idaho and she's gotten a ton of honors, because she is a baller. She doesn't look like a freshman. She looks like she's ready to compete."