Northern Arizona

Northern Arizona Twitter
 

Volleyball Season Preview: Young Squad Gears up for 2009

When a new coach takes over a struggling program, positive results can often take some time. But while the NAU volleyball team still has plenty of goals to reach, second-year head coach Craig Choate led the Lumberjacks to their best record in seven years last season, and this is clearly a team on its way up.

While there is certainly some proven talent on the Lumberjacks' 2009 roster, it is the performances of the unproven talent which will tell the story this season, as to say the roster is full of underclassmen is no exaggeration. Of the 14 student-athletes, 12 are sophomores and freshmen.

Where leadership will come from on such a young team is one of the big unknowns heading into the season. The obvious name that comes to Choate's mind is sophomore outside hitter Lexi Sullivan.

"Lexi was the Big Sky Freshman of the Year," said Choate, "which by itself is not enough, but she's an outgoing person and she just loves to play. She is a person that can lead. Where else it comes from, I don't know. It's not that there aren't others who can lead, but when a team changes its makeup like ours is going to so drastically, you have to wait and see how the chemistry works out to see where the leadership will come from. I'll know in the first three days of practice, but I don't know right now."

The end goal of every season is to earn a berth in the conference tournament, whose winner goes on to the NCAA Tournament. That goal, which the Lumberjacks just barely missed achieving a year ago, will now be made harder as tournament berths will go to just four teams instead of six.

Another obstacle for NAU lies in the experience of the conference's top teams, who return all their starters from last year.

"Portland State, the defending tournament champion, brings all six starters back with five seniors and a junior," said Choate. "They have to be the favorites. Eastern Washington won the regular season and also brings back all six, four juniors and two seniors. Earning a spot in the tournament is always the first goal. Are we going to do everything possible to get there? Of course. Whether we get there or not depends on how fast a lot of people mature, and a certain amount of luck."

Libero

The Lumberjacks will miss the services of Brittany Stowers, last year's Big Sky Libero of the Year who ranked second in the nation in digs. Her defensive performances undoubtedly contributed in a huge way to many of the team's wins last season.

"Brittany can't be replaced," said Choate. "She's too fabulous a combination of defensive player and passer. But you don't have to replace her. Every team has great players go through it that don't get replaced."

"We have some people coming in that I think are very good. Two freshmen, Anna Gott and Lexie Schroeder, are both very good defensive players. But we'll be transitioning from a senior Brittany to a freshman, and that's going to be tough."

Another player Choate will look to defensively is sophomore Sara Bowden. "Sara made great strides in the spring," he says, "and is a much better defensive player than she was last year." Adding to NAU's depth on defense is sophomore Shanlie Kaululaau, who ranked second on the team in assists last year and fifth in digs, playing in 18 matches with 10 starts.

Setter

The lone senior on the team is last year's starting setter, Jana Mays-Robinson, who transferred to NAU prior to last season. She ranked second in the conference and 34th in the nation in assists per set with 10.84, but will likely face some obstacles this year after undergoing two knee surgeries in the offseason.

"It's going to be a really interesting battle for the position," said Choate. "Jana is back for her senior season but may not be 100 percent. We have freshman Kelli Dallmann coming in who was a first team all-state selection in Arizona and in my mind has the potential to be unbelievably good. One of our possible liberos, Anna Gott, set her high school team to the state championship match and is really quite accomplished as well."

Middle Blocker

Junior Chelsea Cheeley returns for her third year with the Lumberjacks, making her the longest-tenured player on the team. Although she saw somewhat limited action as a sophomore, Choate has been very impressed with her play since then.

"Chelsea has been moved all over the place since she got here, but halfway through this past spring I decided we needed to lock her down in the middle blocker position. By the time the end of spring and competition came around, she was really doing a nice job. I think we kind of found a diamond in the rough. The second half of spring was the best volleyball I've seen her play."

Another returner Choate expects to be solid at the middle blocker position is sophomore Katie Bailey, who started in 20 of 22 matches she played in as a freshman and ranked second on the team in blocks. Ashley Ames also factors in the mix after redshirting as a freshman last year.

Outside Hitter

Leading the offense is Lexi Sullivan, who ranked 25th in the nation as a freshman with 4.13 kills per set. "Lexi had a great freshman year," said Choate, "but that year is over with. We're hoping she can have a great sophomore year. She's the kind of athlete that's capable of it because she wants it."

Sophomore Kobi Christensen, who put up some strong numbers in limited action as a freshman due to injury, is back for her second year but once again may not be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery over the summer. In a similar situation is sophomore Sam Hodgkins who missed most of last season and all of the spring season after a shoulder operation.

"Kobi is back, but we don't know about her yet because of the surgery," said Choate, "and with Sam it's the same thing. Those are some question marks. Sam's numbers were quite good for a freshman hitter early last season, but then we lost her."

Looking to earn spots as outside hitters will be freshmen Lauren Campbell and Jen Wilson. "Jen looks strong coming in after her performance at the Junior Olympics this summer," said Choate. "Lauren is someone who I expect to play really smart. She's a 5-8 outside, which is small, but she has real shots. She doesn't just hammer the ball. I'm hoping she can bring something to our game because we didn't have that kind of player last year."

Schedule

Two traditionally nationally-ranked opponents and nine television matches highlight the schedule, which also includes the annual Fiesta Bowl Tournament in Flagstaff on Sept. 11-12.

Choate has put together a tougher early season schedule than the one that saw the Lumberjacks go 8-1 to begin last season, but believes the team will be better for it.

"The schedule is different this year in a few ways," said Choate, "but most notably it's that every team but one ended last season with a higher ranking in the RPI than we did. Our toughness in the schedule has increased three or four-fold."

The NAU TV Services Department is once again televising a majority of the volleyball matches. All nine of the broadcasts will be available on Dish Network 9411 (Universityhouse), and additional stations such as Fox College Sports or FSN Arizona will be announced at a later date. All three of NAU's Fiesta Bowl Tournament matches will be televised, along with six of the eight home Big Sky Conference contests.

"I hadn't been on TV before I came here, and it's fabulous for us," said Choate. "I can't tell you how many people told us they watched matches last year, and it helps us get out there in the recruiting world. I think it does nothing but good for the program and for NAU to get us out there."

NAU begins the season at the Boise State Bronco Invitational where the Lumberjacks will face Cal State Northridge and Tulsa along with host Boise State. "I have a pretty good rivalry with the Northridge coach Jeff Stork who was a gold medal setter in the '88 Olympics," says Choate. "He and I have faced each other three times in the past and they've all gone to five sets so that's kind of fun."

The Lumberjacks will then head to Malibu to take on Pepperdine as part of the USC Tournament. Over the following two days they will also face Florida Gulf Coast and USC in Los Angeles. The USC Trojans were ranked 13th nationally in the final poll from last year, while Pepperdine was ranked during the season and was the third team receiving votes in the final poll.

NAU will host the 17th annual Fiesta Bowl Tournament on its home court in September, and will be looking to defend its title after going a perfect 3-0 last year.

"The Fiesta Bowl was fabulous last year," said Choate. "They treated us better than I've ever been treated at a tournament. They really did a nice job and I was very impressed. The caliber of the teams participating this year will make it a tougher tournament than last year."

The Big Sky slate begins for the Lumberjacks on Sept. 17 and 19 with Idaho State and Weber State coming to Flagstaff. The schedule is home-heavy early on with five of the first eight in NAU's Rolle Activity Center, while five of the final eight league matches will be on the road including the last three straight.

Archives 2013-14