July 20, 2006

Eagle Volleyball in Rebuilding Season

Excitement has never been so scary to Eastern Washington University volleyball coach Wade Benson.

With all the success Eastern Washington has enjoyed in recent years, Benson has done a superb job of avoiding the proverbial rebuilding year. But even he admits that success may be a little scarce this year - particularly early in the year - when he takes on the scary task of blending seven newcomers with eight returning players with limited experience of their own.

"We will be way better at the end then we are in the beginning," said Benson. "So don't look at us in the beginning and think that is what you are going to get because it isn't. You are going to see a lot of improvement out of this group. It is one of those teams that is exciting to coach but scary to coach because some young players need to reach potential for us to be good."

"We are building our depth back up by bringing in a lot of kids this year and we are bringing in a lot next year," he continued. "I think the future is going to be bright and we will be back."

Eastern has compiled an impressive resume in recent years that includes five-straight seasons of winning at least 20 matches, and at least 20 wins in eight of the last nine seasons. The Eagles have also advanced to the championship match of the Big Sky Tournament six-straight seasons, with NCAA Tournament berths in 1989, 1998, 1999 and 2001.

Benson has compiled a 134-46 record (.744 winning percentage) in six seasons at the helm, including an impressive 68-18 (.791) record in the Big Sky Conference. In the last four seasons alone, Eastern is 94-29 (.764) overall and 48-8 (.857) in the Big Sky.

"We lost a lot and this team has a large question mark on it," he said. "I like what we did in the spring, I like the mindset of the players and I think we maximized their potential in the spring. What does that mean? I do not know yet."

Success in hands of inexperience . . .

The continuation of EWU's volleyball success will be in the hands of inexperience. The only player with more than one year of playing experience at EWU is outside hitter Brittney Page, who is a senior three-year letter-winner. Three other seniors - Chrystal Johnson, Ashley Gandauli and Julia Reis - all lettered last year after transferring to EWU.

But only Page and sophomore Addie Webster are returning starters as the Eagles lost four starters and its libero from last year's squad that finished 23-9 overall and third in the Big Sky with a 10-4 mark. In all, Eastern lost seven letter winners, including five seniors.

"Losing five seniors makes it very difficult for us to stay on the same pace that we've seen in terms of wins and losses," explained Benson. "I think we are not going to be quite as successful as far as wins and losses, but maybe by the end of the season we can equally be as good."

Of particular concern is the lack of experience at middle blocker. None of the returning letter winners were middle blockers last year. Freshmen Hayley Hills, Chenoa Coviare and Allison Reinstein will get thrown to the wolves early and often this fall, as will junior college transfer Stephanie Baker.

"We have no middle blocker experience - none - in the Big Sky Conference," admitted Benson. "We have players that have played middle blocker before, but that is going to be a large work in progress. And as they go probably we will go. We will have to get something out of that position by the end or else people are going to figure out how to handle our pin players and they will struggle."

In fact, ex-Eagle basketball player Raelynn Chaffee will be looked upon to learn to play volleyball at the collegiate level. In a hurry, too.

"This is going to be a rebuilding year for sure for us," explained Benson. "We have the young middles and we have Raelynn who hasn't played volleyball for five years. We feel like she is going to add some depth to our middle which will really help because that was a slim position for us."

Baker comes to Eastern from Columbia Basin Community College in Pasco, Wash., after playing high school volleyball at nearby Hanford. Coviare is from Medford, Ore., and Hills is a talented athlete from Quesnel, B.C.

"Stephanie Baker might help in the middle for us," said Benson. "Hayley Hills will be the best athlete to ever come to Eastern in the history of Eastern in maybe any sport, which is pretty phenomenal. So we are just extraordinarily excited about her - she is an amazing athlete but with limited experience."

Benson has confidence in outside hitters . . .

Benson feels confident in his outside hitters, including 6-foot-1, three-year letter-winner Brittney Page. A redshirt in 2002, Page averaged 1.9 kills per game with a .240 hitting percentage. She also averaged 0.7 digs and 0.7 blocks per game.

"It is nice to have five-year seniors around," said Benson. "She had a great spring practice and we expect strong leadership from her, a great hitting percentage and physicality along the net. Our hope is that she can be a first team all-conference player."

Among the team's other outside hitters, Johnson hit .199 and averaged 1.6 kills, while Webster closed her freshman season with marks of .171 and 2.6, respectively. Selected as the Big Sky's Most Outstanding Freshman in 2005, Webster also averaged 3.2 digs per game after coming to Eastern from Jesuit High School in Portland, Ore.

"Chrystal is going to move from the right side probably to the left side and she should be a very exciting player over there," said Benson. "Addie Webster also has all-conference level of play. All three of those players could be first team all-conference if they are as good as we think they are going to be."

A transfer from North Carolina State, Reis also lettered at outside hitter last year. She contributed 0.6 kills, 1.0 digs and had a .216 hitting percentage. Also at a hitter position is 2006 squad member Chelsea Ross.

Among the incoming freshmen, Courtney Goodson from Arvada, Colo., could help in her first year on the squad. So could Hills.

"I think another player that could be a sleeper would be Courtney Goodson - she has some nice experience," said Benson. "We'll just have to wait and see with all our freshmen. I am excited about all of our freshmen, but it just depends how they mesh and how they handle the college experience."

If needed, the versatile Reinstein could also see action at outside hitter. Benson is excited about her ability to play multiple positions.

"She is an exciting, multi-position athlete with a high level of club experience," he said. "She may end up at a left, middle or right-side position. She will be an excellent addition to the multi-dimensional concepts we have in our program."

The battle for setter should be intense as Eastern seeks a replacement for Christina Albers. Ganduali averaged 2.7 assists per game in limited action last year after transferring with Johnson from College of Southern Idaho. She will be pushed by freshman Amanda Yausie from Colonay, Saskatchewan, as well as Reis, who will see some action at setter in the fall.

"It will be interesting to see if she is going to get on to the court," said Benson of Ganduali. "She did some good things in the spring. We are also moving Julia Reis to setter just to get some depth there. Our freshman setter is one who we think is going to be very good."

Libero is another position yet to be determined, with former Big Sky Libero of the Year Andrea Verdoljak holding down that position for the last four seasons. Letter winners Kristen Ponce and Mandy Daniels are two of several players competing for that position.

"Our pin players are going to be pretty good but we are going to have a lot of youth everywhere else," summed up Benson. "We are going to have youth or inexperience for sure in the middle, we are going to have a new setter coming in and we are going to have a new libero in there as well. There are a lot of question marks with players filling new roles and we are just going to see how they handle it."

String of 10-straight years of third or better on the line . . .

Eastern has finished third or better in the Big Sky regular season standings each of the last 10 years, but that streak might be in jeopardy this year. Benson doesn't expect to get much respect early, but hopes his team can earn it later as the Eagles try to extend a streak of six-straight years of advancing to the Big Sky Conference Tournament championship match.

Last year, Sacramento State won its fourth-straight tournament title. Portland State edged Eastern for second in the regular season standings, but EWU beat the Vikings 3-1 in the semifinals to earn a championship match-up with Sacramento State for the fifth-straight year.

"People should pick us fifth or sixth if they look at what we have coming back and what we lost," he explained. "I think Portland State will be good, I think Sacramento State will be good and I think Montana will be better because they are almost all seniors and juniors. Weber State should be better -- they had a lot of youth and played pretty well last year. I think there are going to be five teams battling out for the top spot."

"Where we fit in the mix is way up in the air, but we will be a tough out," he added. "Even rebuilding, I still think people will struggle with us because we have players that are used to winning and hopefully that will transfer into some wins for us."

Eastern's season begins at the Wichita State Tournament on Aug. 25-26 where they will play the host Shockers as well as Syracuse, Louisiana Tech and Texas-San Antonio. The season then continues with four matches in the New York City area and a non-conference match at Gonzaga. Big Sky Conference play opens at Idaho State on Sept. 14, with the Big Sky Conference Tournament taking place Nov. 16-18.

"Wichita State is the cream of the crop for sure - they should have made the tournament last year," Benson said of his season-opening matches. "They were the team that was like us a couple of years ago that definitely deserved to go but didn't. They are going to have a chip on their shoulder and they are going to be very good. Syracuse is obviously a big school from a big conference and is going to have good players. The other two teams are question marks and we hope we can get a win in there somewhere."

"We are going to be too young at that point, but it will be good to be fire-tested," he added. "Some matches will be really difficult and some matches will be medium difficult. Then we head to New York and we are hoping that those matches will be a little easier. We purposely created a little lighter schedule so we can kind of work on some things, get some wins and get some confidence before we come home. We get to rest a little bit before playing Gonzaga, then we move on to the conference schedule."

Adding Northern Colorado to the Big Sky Conference this fall has altered the league schedule significantly.

"It is going to be a weird schedule anyway with Northern Colorado in the league, so everything is going to be brand new in regards to where we are going and how we are going to get there. But I like having the last few matches at home and hopefully we will be good enough to make it into the Big Sky Conference Championships."

So as the scariness subsides, Benson hopes the excitement escalates.

"As a rebuilding year you never know what you are going to get, but I like the players we have coming in," Benson added. "It just depends on how well they mesh and how they handle maybe not being successful early."

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