Aug. 18, 2006
In the midst of a rebuilding project that is going perhaps better than expected, the Eastern Washington University volleyball team goes on the road to Kansas and New York to open its 2006 season.
The season begins with four matches at a tournament in Wichita, Kan., involving host Wichita State, Syracuse, Louisiana Tech and Texas San Antonio. The Eagles then play four more matches in the New York area before getting seven days off prior to playing at Inland Northwest rival Gonzaga.
"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."
Benson's 2006 team is young and inexperienced. 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 six letter winners, including five seniors.
"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."
Benson did get a dose of good news during pre-season practices with the return of middle blocker Kerri Beck, a 2004 graduate of Gonzaga Prep in Spokane, Wash. She originally was going to transfer, but ended up returning to an Eagle team without any significant experience in the middle.
Also, recruit Hayley Hills from Quesnel, B.C., missed the first two weeks of practice because of eligibility issues, but has now been cleared to play. An exceptional athlete, she is expected to play at outside hitter but could also help at middle blocker.
Big Sky Conference play opens at Idaho State on Sept. 14, with the Big Sky Conference Tournament taking place Nov. 16-18.
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," said Eagle head coach Wade Benson. "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."
Other coaches in the league aren't totally convinced with Benson's assessment. In the preseason coaches poll, Eastern was picked to finish second behind Sacramento State.
"Where we fit in the mix is way up in the air, but we will be a tough out," he admitted. "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."
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 of rebuilding 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."
Coming Up (Times Pacific; *Big Sky Conference):
- W. Volleyball - Friday, August 25 - Wichita State Tournament
- EWU vs. Syracuse - 7:30 a.m.
- EWU vs. Louisiana Tech - 3 p.m.
- W. Volleyball - Saturday, August 26 - Wichita State Tournament
- EWU vs. Wichita State - 10 a.m.
- EWU vs. Texas San Antonio - 3 p.m.
- W. Volleyball - Wednesday, August 30 - Manhattan - 4 p.m.
- W. Volleyball - Friday, September 1 - St. Peter's Tournament
- EWU vs. St. Francis - 1 p.m.
- EWU vs. St. Peter's - 3:30 p.m.
- W. Volleyball - Monday, September 4 - at Rider - 3 p.m.
- W. Volleyball - Tuesday, September 12 - at Gonzaga - 7 p.m.
Comments from Head Coach Wade Benson:
- On Need for Matches: "We need experience and to see where our weaknesses are so we can work to fix them. It pretty much comes down to whether our players care enough and stay disciplined enough to progress as the season goes on. We need to progress in order to fight for a championship."
- On Return of Kerri Beck: "Getting Kerri back gives us some stability in the middle that we were desperately lacking. We could be pretty solid when all is said and done, but we have a lot of question marks with a new setter, new libero and with most of the middles having never played for us before. We'll see how we progress, but so far I think the prognosis is better than anticipated."
- On Team Depth: "We have good depth but it's youthful. We're putting in a new offense and a new blocking scheme which could mean that we're going to make a lot of mistakes early. I really feel comfortable with this group that by the end of our rebuilding year we'll be better."
- On Hayley Hills: "Hills not being able to practice for two weeks hurt her progress as a true freshman, and she's one of the best athletes we've ever recruited. She's a question mark still, but she's certainly going to be a highlight reel down the line.