Aug. 10, 2009
Cougar volleyball fans will see some changes in the program during this second year of the Andrew Palileo era at Washington State University. And those fans will definitely have more to cheer for in 2009. A taller, quicker group of student-athletes will implement Palileo's system of play that is expected to bring faster-paced and action-packed volleyball to the Palouse and points beyond. And more wins.
There are five returning WSU starters including outside hitter Jackie Albright and libero Kelly Hyder, both four-year veterans, middle blocker Brittany Tillman back for her third season, 6-3 sophomore outside hitter Meagan Ganzer, and senior Renee Bordelon, a second year setter. Adding to the front row height will be Annie Adams, a 6-3 redshirt sophomore, and freshmen Rachel Todorovich, a 6-2 right-side hitter, and Conley Kipp, a 6-4 middle blocker. Freshman Oceana Bush, an attacking defensive specialist, will have an immediate impact on the team.
"The biggest improvement we'll see is the overall team play from the standpoint of what we are trying to do and the system we're trying to run," Palileo said. "Renee has made huge improvements over the spring both physically and athletically. She understands what I want her to do and feels more confident making adjustments during transition plays. Renee looks even faster because there is no hesitation in her decision-making."
The versatility of Ganzer will be a key to the success of the 2009 Cougars on the court. She is capable of playing on the outside with Adams and Albright or in the middle with Tillman and Kipp.
"Our system is set up for middles to hit at a high hitting percentage and to create a one-on-one situation for the outside hitters," Palileo said. "The middles don't see the ball as much so when they do, it should be a kill every time. And because we will be bigger and more physical, I think we'll have the size that we want out there on the left side to do a better job blocking than we did last year. We'll have solid kids in Annie, Tilly and Todorovich so that physically we will match up much better this year."
Palileo and his coaching staff of Associate Head Coach Brian Lamppa and Assistant Coach TeAna Tramel have mentored the returning players through a learning curve last fall and a productive spring training season.
"We have progressed the team mindset past the one point at a time philosophy. We are now able to fall behind and still come back," Palileo said. "The veteran players know how important the younger players are. They are no longer fearful of the responsibilities that come with success. We have nowhere to go but up. But once you're there, trying to sustain that level through the course of time, you have to pass on those expectations to a younger group of players."
The always tough Pacific-10 Conference sent six teams to the 2008 NCAA Tournament and the Cougars will face each league member twice.
"I think we're going to be better," Palileo continued. "Our players understand what the coaching staff is trying to do and they have more confidence in the program. Now we have the size to compete. The Pac-10 gives you fits because the players are just bigger and better athletes than at most schools. I believe the Pac-10 race will be fun to watch this season as it looks to be unpredictable with many teams competing for the title."
In addition to the Pac-10 teams on the 2009 schedule, WSU will face NCAA Tournament team Utah and Big 12 Conference member Missouri at a tournament at Utah Valley University. The Cougars will host two tournaments with UC Davis, Montana State and Portland coming for the Nike Cougar Invitational, and Cal State Northridge and Idaho coming for the Nike Cougar Challenge. WSU will also play Weber State at Ogden, Gonzaga in Spokane and host Eastern Washington.
Albright is a six-rotation player who returns for her fourth season as a starter for the Cougs. She was the team's leading hitter and second in digs in 2008, finishing the year strong as she acquired experience in playing the Palileo system. Albright was able to create more shots for herself and utilized a different pace to the ball. This past spring, Albright added a top-spin jump serve and refined her float serve technique.
"We are going to count on Jackie to pass the ball, to serve tough, as well as play well in the front row. We need Jackie to lead the outsides," Palileo said.
Don't expect a sophomore slump from Ganzer who developed into a starter on the right side at the end of last season. Playing at the outside hitter position Ganzer's mission will be to terminate the ball consistently as she finds one-on-one opportunities to smack the ball between the lines. She was effective in this role last spring and should emerge as the Cougs' kills leader this fall.
"Our offense is designed for the outsides to be effective," Palileo said. "Our goal for this season is to raise our hitting percentages for all attackers. They worked hard during individual sessions and the spring season to develop their shot-making abilities and learned how to be more aggressive."
Ganzer fills the depth chart effectively in all three front row positions and will be an important cog to the success of the Cougar team in 2009. Known as a "big banger" style hitter, she will be getting more than double the amount of swings she saw as a freshman.
"Meagan adjusts her arm swing depending on where she's playing and she's able to do that on the fly. If we can improve her blocking, she could be our next player receiving all-conference honors," Palileo said.
Adams transferred from South Dakota State last fall and had a redshirt season where she practiced with the team but will have to learn to compete again in game situations after a nearly two-year lag. Adams' ability to block will be a great asset to the Cougars and her range of physicality will benefit the team; at 6-3 she is imposing at the net.
"We are going to work Annie in slowly and put her in situations where I think she can be successful to start out with then go from there," Palileo said. "Annie will give us blocking that we didn't have last year. And she has been improving hitting-wise and creating shots. We have been working with all of our hitters on having more than one shot."
At 6-2 and left-handed, Todorovich will provide a good right side attack but also have the opportunity to move around for several offensive hitting locations. She comes with good skill sets, including being a setter in high school which is a big advantage for a right side hitter, hitting down the line as a lefty, and hitting off of one foot. Once she builds up her strength to play at the collegiate level, Palileo envisions Todorovich becoming one of the top right side hitters in the conference.
"Rachel fits in well with what we are trying to do with the middles and we will opening up swings for her," Palileo said. "I'm excited about her but I don't want to put a lot of pressure on her. I expect her to challenge for the right side staring position."
Rounding out the outside hitter position are redshirt sophomore Kimika Rozier and redshirt freshman Tangerine Wiggs. Rozier made improvements to her game over the spring training period and continues to show progress. Wiggs is slated to back-up Todorovich on the right side but needs to develop more strength. Both players need to learn how to transition their accomplishments in the controlled setting of a practice into game-time success.
Tillman, known as Tilly, has noticeably improved her playing skills in the past year and was the team's leading hitter, percentage hitter, and blocker during the 2008 Pac-10 season. Palileo wants to see a continuation of Tillman's improvement in two areas: embracing the mindset of being ready to get the ball on every set, and getting a quicker first step on her blocking approach. Her lack of playing experience is a difficult quality to make up for but the coaching staff sees a bright future for her.
"Tilly has the potential to be a very dominant middle. I think she could be one of the top four middles in the Pac-10 with development of her volleyball IQ," Palileo said. "That is what we are trying to improve; get her to know what to do instinctively and not panic. Her physicality and athleticism makes her one of the top three or four players this year. If she can take one step further along in her development, she will do well."
Robbins suffered a foot stress fracture and missed the last third of the 2008 season but her improvement was notable as she rebounded to lead the team in percentage hitting during the spring. She is a strong contributor to the offense that is in front of the setter with her pushes, but she will also hit a couple of slides every match. Robbins does a good job of closing blocks and she touches more playable balls the other Cougar middles.
"Cassie gives us flexibility because she can play middle and right side. Offensively, we need to get her to play where Tilly was at last year and have Tilly play the percentages where Emily Rooney played last year," Palileo said. "Cassie is really deceiving because she is more mobile and faster than she looks. She will be effective in the zero tempo sets that we like to use her in."
Kipp brings both size and physicality to the team and is expected to begin her WSU career in the middle but could easily move to the right side as she adapts to the collegiate pace of play. Her consistently effective jump serve, along with improvement in the quickness of her arm swing, gives Kipp the possibility of making the starting lineup as the year progresses.
"Conley has played at a high level for a couple of years in a really good club program and I'm hoping that her experiences on that team get her to make the adjustment to collegiate volleyball quickly," Palileo said. "She has a great top-spin jump serve that I'm hoping we will be able to use. She will provide us depth at the beginning of the year and we'll see where she goes towards the middle of the season."
The setter position will feature senior Renee Bordelon with transfer Alex Diemer.
Bordelon was a late addition to the Cougars 2008 team after playing at North Idaho College for two seasons. She averaged 9.74 assists per set last fall but after a year in the Palileo system of play, Bordelon is confidently ready to take charge and be the floor general for the Cougs. Improvement in her decision-making abilities was evident during the spring practice matches. With a raised level of talented hitters on the team, Bordelon should have a solid season.
"Renee changed her mind-set and she has become more of a leader on the court, demanding the respect of the players and I think she has that," Palileo said. "She will look like a good setter not only because of her improvement but because we brought in Rachel and moved Meagan to the left side. When someone can put the ball down, the setter looks that much better."
Diemer transferred from Boise State in January of this year and spent the spring season working with the team. She has athleticism and Palileo considers her a natural setter who knows what plays she wants to run and knows how to force action. Her goal for this year is to speed up her tempo to match the team.
"Alex can set the middle from wherever she is at on the court," Palileo said. "She is a good back-up and can push Renee. I feel good with Alex coming off the bench to set in relief."
LIBEROS / DEFENSIVE SPECIALISTS
Kelly Hyder returns for her senior season as a four-year starter and the school record-holder for digs in a career (1,439) and in a season (565 in 2006). Hyder has been a durable libero in a very tough conference and should wrap up her career with another year of good numbers in the digs column.
"Kelly adds to the overall stability of our team when she is on the court," Palileo said. "One of the most important skills set on our team is ball control and I will look for Kelly to provide that for us."
Freshman Oceana Bush will take on the position of attacking defensive specialist. Palileo said she has the level of athleticism at this position similar to several All-American players in the conference. Additionally, Bush is an aggressive server and has an awesome top spin jump serve.
"I'm excited to have Oceana join the team. She has a nose for the ball and wants to attack the ball," Palileo said. "I like her aggressive nature in the back row both defensively and offensively."
Junior Faith Hutcherson, junior transfer Silver Keck, and freshman Liz Haskey will all be competing for the next defensive specialist spot. More experience playing at a high level during game situations will benefit all three. But with Hyder and Bush in the back row and Albright playing all the way around, there will be limited playing time for others.
"Hopefully their practice play will reach that high level so when they get their opportunities during a game, they can take advantage of that playing time," Palileo said.