Women’s volleyball aims high for national title

Junior Kaia Schwartz (middle) attempts to tap the ball over the block of senior Drew Hargrave (left) and junior Emily Tulloch as Sophomore Lindsay Juriga looks on during an intrasquad scrimmage on Aug. 22. The volleyball team will open its 2012 season Friday at home against Fontbonne University and William Woods University.

After blowing a two-set lead against Carthage College in last year’s Division III tournament and thereby squandering a chance at an 11th national title, the Washington University women’s volleyball team was filled with a sense of regret at the missed opportunity.

“I think it’s definitely something that’s still in our minds…and it’s something that a lot of us come out here and use as a motivational factor,” senior captain Kelly Pang said. “We never want to feel that feeling again.”

Pang and her fellow seniors hope to finish their Wash. U. careers by replicating their freshman year—when the Bears won their 10th national championship.

“I am very glad that we got to have that experience, got to have the taste and got to understand what exactly is needed to be put in that position at the end of the season,” Pang said. “We really want to leave Wash. U. the way we started.”

Fellow senior captain Marilee Fisher agreed. “I can say with confidence that there’s nothing like the feeling of winning a national championship, and I’ve been hungry for it ever since we won freshman year…we know what it’s like and really have had the experience of going through a season and having been in the national championship, so we really know what it takes,” she said.

Gone from that championship team are last year’s graduating seniors, most notably first-team All-American Lauren Budde and team leader Tricia Brandt.

“The term ‘replacement’ is probably not appropriate when you’re talking about Lauren and when you’re talking about Tricia,” head coach Rich Luenemann admitted. “Lauren’s contributions were multifold…and Tricia added quite a bit of intensity to the direction of the team, so those players cannot be replaced. All we can do is try to make sure that people who come in and play their position [and] complement everyone else’s strengths on the floor.”

Still, the team is not lacking in returning talent. Fisher and Pang are both two-time first-team All-Americans, and senior Drew Hargrave (third-team) and junior Meghan Byrne (honorable mention) also garnered All-America honors last season.

“We certainly believe that we have a more experienced team than last year,” Luenemann noted. “I think that the leadership we have from our captains is certainly one of the strongest points.”

Wash. U. enters the season as one of the title favorites, having received the No. 2 ranking in the preseason poll, behind only Christopher Newport University; however, this ranking is moot if the players do not live up to the high expectations thrust upon them both by the school’s rich volleyball history and their own personal goals.

“You can set high expectations for yourself, but it doesn’t always mean that’s going to happen,” Fisher said. “We need to have the mentality of ‘take one game at a time.’ Nothing’s [been] handed to us so just work hard every game, every point.”

The season schedule is populated by matches against other nationally ranked opponents, most notably a mid-September tournament featuring the last three national champions: No. 5 Wittenberg University, No. 3 Calvin College, and Wash. U.

A late-season road duel against rival and fourth-ranked Emory University on Oct. 14 should go a long way toward deciding the regular season conference title and preparing the Bears for a deep playoff run.

To defeat these high-ranked teams, the Wash. U. volleyball team must continue to improve on the more cerebral aspects of the sport.

“Great focus [is] something that Coach always emphasizes…maintaining focus through every single point of every single match,” Fisher said. “I keep envisioning [the loss to] Carthage and I think that we lost focus. I really think that focus is a very critical part of winning and is a very critical part of being successful. You always have to keep focus.”

Luenemann pegged a different aspect as paramount: “We’re looking for a significantly better system [of] execution…the more that you stay within [the] intricacies of the system, the better we will execute.”

Though there are still issues to be worked out, Pang expressed enthusiasm for the upcoming season.

“I’m excited that we have another three months together to get better and put the pieces together,” Pang said.

And if those pieces do come together and the Bears apply their talent and experience the way they hope and expect, the seniors in search of another title may get their moment to see banner No. 11 rise to the rafters.

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