With Pieces In Place, @EWUVolleyball Looks To Begin Completion Of Puzzle In 2015

With Pieces In Place, @EWUVolleyball Looks To Begin Completion Of Puzzle In 2015

This Week in @EWUVolleyball

vs. Seattle   at California
Friday, Aug. 28 - 4:30 p.m. PT   Saturday, Aug. 29 - 10 a.m. PT
Haas Pavilion - Berkeley, Calif.   Haas Pavilion - Berkeley, Calif.
Live Stats   Live Stats
                 
vs. Nevada    
Saturday, Aug. 29 - 4:30 p.m. PT    
Haas Pavilion - Berkeley, Calif.    
Live Stats    

Match Notes

Cheney, Wash. – Puzzles can be tricky. Finding the border is a good place to start. It's the frame that holds everything together. But it's those middle pieces, the ones that take time to search for and fit together, that transform the outline into a complete picture.

For Eastern Washington Volleyball and 10-year head coach Wade Benson, 2015 figures to be the year that those pieces begin to come together to form an image of success. That process officially starts this weekend at the Molten Classic in Berkeley, Calif., where the Eagles will take on Seattle, California and Nevada over two days.

Veterans Ryann Ensrud and Allie Schumacher are back for their fourth and final seasons in Cheney. They, along with junior Sophie Miller, are the most experienced players on Eastern's roster.

The rest of the squad consists of solid second-year players and a swath of talented newcomers, including nine players suiting up for the Eagles for the first time.

Perhaps the most important element of this year's edition of EWU Volleyball is Benson's return to the sideline following a leave of absence in 2014. He spent much of the offseason following Eastern's 2013 campaign battling throat cancer, but more time was required for him to recuperate and become fully healthy.

Benson was the architect behind the Eagles' tremendous success in the early 2000's, leading EWU to three Big Sky regular season titles, one Big Sky Tournament title, and the conference's lone NCAA Tournament victory, a 2001 win over Oregon State.

"I don't feel like I've missed a beat," Benson said. "I've got a good staff with me, and the team chemistry has been great. Everything has been moving along very positively."

With Benson back at the helm, and with the pieces firmly in place, it's only a matter of time before the puzzle is complete.

Outside Hitters

Seniors Ana Jakovljevic and Allie Schumacher highlight a deep group of outside hitters that includes a number of newcomers that Benson is high on, most notably freshmen Ka'iulani Ahuna and Fernanda Vido.

Schumacher, an Honorable Mention All-Big Sky pick back in 2013, was second on the team last year with an average of 2.54 kills per set to go along with an average of 1.28 digs per set. She sits just outside the top 25 on EWU's career kills list with 748 kills and is looking to become the first player to notch 1,000 career kills in five seasons and the 10th player to do so in Eastern's NCAA DI history.

Jakovljevic averaged 1.75 kills per set last season in her first year with the program after transferring from Northwest College. She also averaged 1.76 digs per set, good for fourth on the team.

Ahuna and Vido figure to factor in the Eagles' rotation at outside hitter, along with sophomore transfer and Cheney native Ashley Seiler, giving EWU the quality depth it has been lacking in recent years.

"Our outside group is much stronger this season," Benson said. "Ana and Allie are a great duo, and the additions of Ashley, Ka'iulani and Fernanda are exciting. We have pretty good depth over there, and those three are all going to see time."

Right Sides

Sophomore Chloe Weber has made the transition to the right side of Eastern's attack after spending her freshman year as a middle blocker. Arguably EWU's most athletic player, she averaged 0.94 kills per set last season while swinging at a .206 clip. She also averaged 0.62 blocks per set, good for fourth on the team.

Benson tips freshman Jessica Gilbert to have an impact on the right, as well, after a standout prep career in California that saw her earn Modesto Metro Conference Player of the Year honors as a senior.

"Chloe is playing very well for us right now," noted Benson. "I think Jessica has the potential to be a star in the Big Sky. Those two are very physical with good size on that side."

Middle Blockers

Graduate transfer Alexis Wesley headlines a relatively inexperienced but athletic group of players at middle blocker. Wesley graduated from Memphis with her bachelor's degree this past spring, finishing her career with the Tigers with 542 kills and 273 blocks. She leaves Memphis ranked third all-time on the Tigers' career hitting percentage list with a career .280 clip, and her 174 blocks in 2014 were good for fifth-most in a season in program history.

Sophie Miller, the team's lone junior whom Benson calls the ultimate utility player, has transitioned to middle blocker following stints at setter and on the right side in her first two seasons in Cheney. Benson believes her versatility and athleticism will be an asset for EWU at a position not packed with game experience.

Sophomore Taylor Larsen, who featured sparingly last season after being called into action following a rash of injuries, and redshirt freshmen Haile Watson and Kimberly Brinkworth will also battle for time.

"Sophie played middle in high school, and she is just a multi-talented kind of player," said Benson. "Her presence, combined with Alexis, will allow our redshirt freshmen to have a little more time to elevate their game. They're pushing, though, and are coming on strong."

Setters

Sophomore Nicole Rigoni is Eastern's most experienced setter after sharing time with Miller a season ago as part of the Eagles' 6-2 formation. She averaged 4.77 assists per set and 1.24 digs per set while her 16 service aces ranked third on the team. The Oregon native showed glimpses of her ability to run the show last season, recording a season-best 41 assists against College of Charleston on Sept. 2, and Benson was quick to point out her improvement this past offseason.

Freshman Tilbe Yaglioglu is expected to see some action in relief of Rigoni, and Benson likes the German's raw skill set.

"Nicole has really improved," said Benson. "She has worked hard this past offseason, and it's showing. Tilbe also adds some options for us offensively."

Liberos/Defensive Specialists

Senior Ryann Ensrud is back for her fourth and final season in Cheney, needing just 199 digs to become just the eighth Eagle to eclipse the 1,000-dig mark in the program's NCAA DI history. She averaged a team-best 2.69 digs per set a season ago and finished the year strong, going for double-figure digs in each of EWU's final five matches.

Sophomore Ashlee Vaoifi saw time off the bench in her first season, averaging 1.56 digs per set. Benson also tips Vido and potentially Jakovljevic to contribute as he looks for consistency both on defense and in ball control.

"Our defense and ball handling will definitely be better this year," Benson said. "I'm looking for steadiness in the back row. It's a battle for playing time right now. The libero position is still up in the air. Ana could even feature there because she handles the ball so well. No true decision has been made there yet."

Schedule

Due to the youth and relative inexperience on this year's squad, Benson carefully crafted EWU's nonconference schedule, including matches against nationally ranked programs along with tilts against foes that will allow Eastern's young players to gain valuable experience.

The Eagles will face juggernauts Florida and Hawai'i, along with matches against well-known programs such as California, Providence and San Diego State in trips to the Bay Area, New Orleans and Honolulu.

"It's important that this team build some confidence," Benson said. "However, even though we're young, I'm not interested in saying, 'We're here to learn.' I'm not talking about this being a growth experience. We're going to play against high-caliber programs, and I'm saying, 'Learn how to win against anybody.'"

The Big Sky scheduling gods blessed EWU with a chance for success to start the league season, giving Eastern five of its first six league matches in the friendly confines of Reese Court. The Eagles' home opener comes Thursday, Sept. 24, against North Dakota, before they face Northern Colorado in Cheney on Saturday, Sept. 26.

A road contest at Southern Utah on Thursday, Oct. 1, comes next before EWU returns home for tilts against Idaho (Saturday, Oct. 3), Sacramento State (Thursday, Oct. 8) and Portland State (Saturday, Oct. 10).

The only caveat to Eastern's seemingly advantageous start to conference play is that five of its first six opponents qualified for the Big Sky Tournament a season ago, something the Eagles have failed to do in each of the last four seasons. Benson will be the first to acknowledge that returning to the league tournament is EWU's primary goal heading into its 2015 campaign.

"Our first goal right now is to get back to the tournament," Benson said. "With 14 freshmen and sophomores on the roster, facing these teams early can be both good and bad. I'd prefer to play them later in the schedule because I believe this team has the potential to be very dangerous, especially in the second half of the season."

Big Sky Preseason Poll

Eastern is picked to finish eighth in the league standings this season by the Big Sky's coaches. If predictions lead to reality, Benson and the Eagles will have achieved their goal of returning to the Big Sky Tournament as eight teams earn bids to the conference's postseason get-together. EWU fell just shy of returning to the tournament last year, owning the best record of any team not to make the field.

"With 14 freshmen and sophomores, it's anyone's guess as to where we'll land," said Benson. "I wouldn't bet against us finishing higher. We'll let the chips fall where they may."

Goals and Expectations

Having missed out on a spot in the conference tournament in each of the last three seasons, Benson has his sights set on a return to the league's postseason event. Beyond that, he'd prefer to take a wait-and-see approach as the team continues to gel through the nonconference portion of its schedule.

"We haven't talked about team goals yet," Benson said. "We'll do more of that then when we have a much better understanding of where we might lie after nonconference play. The first step for us, though, is returning to the Big Sky Tournament."

Benson went on to say that, no matter what transpires this season, he would like to look back on things at the end of the year and be able to say that the team got better and competed every day.

"I just want the team to compete on a day-to-day basis," Benson continued. "If I know that players are going to come in prepared and care about how they perform on a consistent basis, then I'm not really worried about anything else."

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