2014 Women's Volleyball Season Outlook
August 26, 2014
MALIBU, Calif. - A new era for the Pepperdine women's volleyball team has begun, as head coach Troy Tanner gears up for his first season on the Waves' sideline. With five returning starters plus a solid crop of newcomers, Tanner expects his squad to be a competitive force to be reckoned with in the West Coast Conference.
Pepperdine welcomes back five starters from last season, headlined by AVCA All-American honorable mention setter Becca Strehlow (Long Beach, Calif./Woodrow Wilson HS). Also back are seniors Katie Messing (The Woodlands, Texas/The Woodlands HS) and Samantha Cash (San Diego, Calif./Canyon Crest Academy). As the two top returning point scorers, Messing and Cash are expected to carry a significant offensive load as they enter their final season inside Firestone Fieldhouse.
With the new coaching personnel - which also includes assistant coaches Alex Dunphy and Kyle Luongo and volunteer assistant coach Shay Goulding Meurer - comes changes on the court, which the Waves are embracing whole heartedly.
"Practice has been going well," said Tanner, a Pepperdine men's volleyball alum, Olympic gold medalist and 2011 Pepperdine Athletics Hall of Fame inductee. "We're implementing new systems and providing the girls with lots of information, and the girls have been terrific and very responsive. They're improving daily and we're all having a good time in the process.
"This team is developing courage, stamina and grit, and it's been great watching them grow. I'm confident they'll be ready to fight and compete."
With a conference that features two teams currently listed in the AVCA Top 25 coaches poll, Pepperdine can expect WCC competition to be as fierce as ever. The Waves finished in a tie for fourth in the league standings last season, and with the majority of their starters returning, can count on being right in the thick of the conference race again in 2014. They were predicted to finish in fourth place in the WCC preseason coaches poll.
"We plan to play well enough to win a lot of WCC matches and contend this season," continued Tanner. "We're full of belief and expect to get better every week. Our returning players are setting a good tone for training, and the new athletes are eager to learn, as are the veterans."
Here is a more in-depth look at the Waves by position:
One area the Waves can expect to be strong in this season is at the setting position. Returning AVCA All-American Becca Strehlow and transfer Chanel Brown (Tempe, Ariz./Valley Christian HS/Arizona) both boast tremendous "big game" experience - the kind of experience a coach would want for their setters as they lead the offense.
Strehlow, who picked up All-American honors in both indoor and sand volleyball in 2013-14, ranked third in the WCC with 10.25 assists/set last year as a sophomore. A true all-around threat, Strehlow ranked second on the team with 82 blocks and even picked up her first triple-double with 49 assists, 13 digs and 10 blocks in a match vs. Loyola Marymount.
In addition to her experience as an indoor player, the Long Beach native also helped the Waves' sand volleyball team bring home the AVCA national championship last spring. Tied 2-2 in the title dual vs. Florida State, Strehlow and sand partner Lara Dykstra won in straight sets to clinch the team victory for Pepperdine, securing its second national championship in three seasons.
Brown, who transfers to Pepperdine as a graduate student after earning her bachelor's degree in sports management in 2014 from Arizona, also knows how to handle the pressure of the spotlight. With three years of experience playing at both Florida and Arizona, Brown has led her teams to two NCAA Tournaments, including an NCAA Regional Final appearance with the Gators in 2011.
"I am very happy with our setting," said Tanner. "Becca is not just a great setter. She's a great hitter, blocker, server and passer - a true five-tool player. Becca is going to be a great leader for us this season and I expect her to play a huge role.
"Chanel brings a lot of passion, joy and enthusiasm to practice. She's everything a coach could want in a player. Her experience in big matches - playing in the SEC and Pac-12 - is unmatched on this team. That familiarity and comfort on the floor will help the other players."
Although the Waves' depth at outside hitter may be somewhat lacking, the four pin hitters they do have pack a powerful punch. Headlining the group is three-year starter Katie Messing, who paced the offense in 2013 with 3.54 kills/set. Competing for starting vacancies include sophomores Jillian Bergeson (Friendswood, Texas/Friendswood HS) and Gaby Palmeri (Davis, Calif./St. Francis HS), and freshman Allie Loitz (Bonita, Calif./Bonita Vista HS).
Messing, towering at 6-foot-4, is just one of two seniors who have been on the team since their freshman season. With 813 career kills to her credit, she stands to become just the 17th player in program history to reach the 1,000 kills milestone by season's end.
"Katie is a very good player," commented Tanner. "She hits high, hard and with range and will play a big role at outside hitter for us. She knows she's the go-to hitter and is ready to shoulder the responsibility. I'm excited to watch her evolve into a leader."
Bergeson enters her sophomore campaign after making 19 starts for Pepperdine as a freshman. A heralded outside hitter in high school, Bergeson filled a void that the Waves had last season at the libero position. Although the defensive role was somewhat new for the Texas native, Bergeson proved up the challenge and collected 3.56 digs/set to rank seventh in the WCC. Bergeson also saw time in the front row, with a kills-digs double-double in her first collegiate start, and an impressive 19-kill performance vs. Pacific.
"Jill's role is growing," Tanner said. "Her vertical has significantly improved since last spring, and she can hit with range and power. She's committed to working hard, learning, and becoming a reliable, six-rotation player."
Palmeri looks to break into the starting lineup after appearing in 11 matches as a freshman.
"Gaby is one of the more physical girls on the team. She has a big jump and arm," continued Tanner. "Because of her physicality, we're expecting to see her take over matches at times."
Also in Tanner's arsenal is freshman Loitz, who comes to Pepperdine after a successful playing career at Bonita Vista High School outside of San Diego.
Tanner has high hopes for his rookie: "She's got a big arm and can block and pass. Allie needs to adjust to the speed of WCC volleyball and is certainly making strides. She's got a big future and is sure to be a major contributor this season."
The Waves will enjoy considerable depth at the middle blocker position, led by senior standout Samantha Cash (San Diego, Calif./Canyon Crest Academy). Cash is widely recognized for her never-wavering work ethic and drive to be the best. Her humble lead-by-example demeanor should prove beneficial to the four vying for the other starting position: Reegan Dennis (Newport Beach, Calif./Orange Lutheran HS), Emma Fuzie (Carmel, Calif./Carmel HS), Brooke Honeycutt (Phoenix, Ariz./Desert Vista HS) and Olivia Okoro (Carrollton, Texas/Hebron HS/Tennessee).
Cash opened her Pepperdine career in a big way in 2011 and was rewarded with WCC Freshman of the Year honors. She paced the team with a blocks average of 1.18 - a number that ballooned to 1.40 blocks/set in league matches. Her season blocks total of 142.0 came up just two roofs shy of setting a new single-season rally-scoring era record at Pepperdine.
Nagged with injury as a sophomore, her numbers made a slight decline in 2012 but she returned in full force in 2013. She posted her best numbers to date with 2.29 kills/set and 1.31 blocks/set.
"Samantha is clearly the #1 middle blocker on our team," praised Tanner of his senior. "She can hit the whole range of sets and she simply loves the sport of volleyball. She gives 100 percent in every drill and sets a good tone in practice."
The sophomore contingent, comprised of Honeycutt, Fuzie and Dennis, all earned starting bids during their rookie season. Honeycutt saw the most court time, and cashed in with 1.10 kills/set and 0.84 blocks/set. Fuzie made 13 starts and averaged 1.08 kills/set and 0.69 blocks/set.
"Brooke is very effective at the net and is really improving her defensive skills," Tanner continued. "Emma is continually getting stronger and hitting with more range every day. She's another player who works hard and strives to improve. Reegan always gives 100 percent and pushes those around her to improve and play their best."
Joining the mix is Okoro, who redshirted last season with the Waves after transferring in from Tennessee. Prior to playing for the Volunteers, Okoro won an NCAA championship title with UCLA in 2011 as a freshman. She averaged 1.14 kills/set and 0.85 blocks/set for the Lady Vols in 2012.
"Olivia is very physical and really impressive when she's in rhythm," stated Tanner, "and her rhythm improves with every practice. She's also bringing good energy to the team."
A large void has been filled this season with the addition of freshmen liberos Katie Lespier (Huntington Beach, Calif./Huntington Beach HS), Kelli Gerrans (Los Gatos, Calif./Archbishop Mitty HS) and Ashley Morgan (Anaheim Hills, Calif./Canyon HS). Although outside hitter Bergeson impressed playing out of position last season at libero, the Waves should benefit from having three experienced defensive-minded players pick up the reins this season.
Lespier comes in with elite-level club experience, having played for the Irvine-based TStreet Volleyball Club. She helped TStreet to an impressive third-place showing in the 18 USA Division at the 2013 USA Volleyball Junior National Championship, and was subsequently placed on the all-tournament team.
"When Katie is at the top of her game, she's incredible," praised Tanner. "Her confidence is improving and she can receive serve at a very high level. She's also got a high volleyball IQ and will see a lot of court time."
Also competing for playing time is Gerrans, and Pepperdine volleyball runs in the family. Her older brother Kyle just graduated from Pepperdine and was a starting outside hitter for the men's volleyball team. She even dons the #6 jersey, just as Kyle did.
"Kelli has come in strong and is on the fast track to receive serve at a high level. She's made some huge changes already, loves the sport, wants to compete and has an aggressive personality. If she continues to improve - and we expect her to - she'll play a significant role for this team," Tanner said.
Morgan also comes from TStreet and was Lespier's teammate during the bronze-medal run in 2013. Morgan, an All-Century League first team pick as a high school junior and senior, was a three-time Best Defensive Player award winner at Canyon High School
"Ashely is a very, very solid defensive player," said Tanner. "On defense, the harder hit attack, the better. She's not intimidated one bit and is always looking for opportunities to dive, dig and keep the ball from hitting the floor. She continues to improve on service reception and brings the level of play up in the gym up."
The Waves open the season with the Pepperdine Asics Classic, bringing in South Alabama, Nevada and Oral Roberts, on August 29-30.