Huskies enter season with high expectations.
"I think that this team is the best we've ever had," Washington volleyball coach Bill Neville says, describing his 1997 Husky team.
Those are strong words, to be sure. Especially when the '97 squad will be without All-American Angela Bransom, the best player in UW history, and Molly Jacobson, who provided as much heart and determination as any player during her four-year career. Both graduated after helping the 1996 team to an outstanding season - a third-place Pac-10 finish, a 23-8 record and a trip to the second-round of the NCAA Tournament.
But Neville believes that, despite those losses, this year's team can be even better. "When you combine the talent, experience, depth and overall team unity of this team," he says, "my experience tells me that this is the best team we've ever had."
The talent is obvious. Consider that the UW could have four national team players (two for the United States, two for Canada) before the year is out. Washington' also boasts two of the best blockers in nation.
Experience? Absolutely. The '97 Huskies include seven seniors, four of whom are in their fifth year in the program, as well as two juniors and three sophomores. All have considerable playing experience and, between them, have earned a total of 27 varsity letters.
As for depth, there's no question. Eleven of those 12 players listed above have seen a considerable amount of time and nine have been starters at some point or another during their career. Furthermore, the roster includes two redshirt freshmen that will get their chance to play and two able-bodied true freshmen. All of them are good enough to play and excel in the Pac-10.
Finally, there's team unity. Time after time, Neville goes back to the importance of this factor in making his team a good one. As talented as the players that make up the Huskies are, they are equally as committed to the team concept and working for the greater good.
First and foremost is All-America candidate Makare Desilets, one of the Huskies' quick hitters and one of the nation's top blockers. A year ago, her 1.80 blocks per game were the fourth-most in the country and she is one of seven All-Pac-10 first-teamers returning the league this season. A dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., she made the U.S. National Team during the off-season.
"I'd love to say I taught her how to jump," Neville says. "She's still developing, but she's probably the best blocker in the United States. She's got the range, the composure and the competitiveness."
Another senior starter is swing Amy Tutt, a member of the Canadian National Team. Tutt, known for her immense power, will likely become the featured hitter in the offense with the departure of Bransom. Not only a strong hitter that has learned to control her heat, Tutt is also a tremendous outside blocker.
"She used to be like a young Randy Johnson," Neville says, referring to the Seattle Mariners pitching ace. "A few years ago, there were times he'd launch a pitch into the third deck. But like Johnson, she's matured and she's started to hit her shots with accuracy."
Senior setter Michelle Patton has been trying to recover from a nagging knee injury. When healthy, Neville says, she's very effective. "She knows the game and provides a stabilizing effect to the team," he says. "She's a really steady player."
Despite being exclusively a back row player, Julie Polan played in 96 games last year and was a starter. A strong student of the game, Neville says that Polan is as reliable as they come. "She always makes me look like a good coach," Neville says.
Swing Dana Netherby, the team's captain for the second straight year, has been plagued by injuries, but will still play a big role. A tremendous defensive player, Neville marks Netherby as another player on whom he can always rely, calling her "extremely competitive and knowledgable of the game."
Kori Schweizer, another swing, has started on and off during her career, which has seen its share of injuries. "There's no doubt that if Kori's healthy, she'll challenge for a starting spot," Neville says.
Swing Julie Baker is another player that Neville considers a key to the team's cohesiveness. Perhaps the team's best overall athlete, she made a big jump during the spring season and has earned playing time with her strong hitting. "Julie is a big part of our strong depth," Neville says. "Plus, she's one of the big reasons our team chemistry is so good."
The other junior is swing hitter Alison Seacat. A deadly server, Seacat finds herself in a large group at the swing position, but should get her chances this year. "I love having Alison on the team, and I mean that," Neville says. "My instincts tell me that when she's asked to make a big play, she'll make it."
"She plays on a mission," Neville says. "The skill she had to learn was to just relax and play the game. She had to carry a big load as a freshman and she did it well."
Another sophomore with a good deal of experience is setter Angie Coma, who spent some time as a starter and could be the team's primary setter this year, depending on Patton's recovery. Neville uses the words "fiery" and "quick" to describe Coma and notes that she started all of the Huskies' matches in the spring, adding experience and maturation to her game.
Tamara VanEngelen was the other true freshman to see time in 1996. A natural quick hitter, she'll mostly play opposite with Desilets and Tuiasosopo taking the two quick spots. Her blocking sets her apart and Neville says that with her in the lineup, the Huskies become even a better blocking team.
Seacat is 6-foot-3 and is the team's best rhythm hitter who rarely gets fooled by a set, Neville says. A seemingly quiet person, Neville notes that she is a very tough player and a tireless worker.
Neville calls swing hitter Malena Thompson "very smooth and very athletic" and says that she will challenge for playing time even as a true freshman and at a position already occupied by six upperclassmen.
A quick hitter, 6-foot-3 Lisa Underhill may have to be patient playing behind Desilets and Tuiasosopo. Tall and mobile, Underhill is "quick, gets up and has good heat," according to Neville.
With so much talent, the Huskies have set their sites high - as in challenging for the Pac-10 championship and making a deeper run into the NCAA Tournament. With such a good combination of talent, experience, depth and chemistry, the sky's the limit.