Season Outlook: Coming of Age
LMU volleyball returns five starters plus its libero. And Lion fans return with hope for a fourth straight NCAA postseason run.
Aug. 21, 2006
Loyola Marymount University volleyball made its third straight appearance at the NCAA Volleyball Championships in 2005. Now, the 2006 Lions return wanting even more.
The 2005 postseason appearance was LMU's seventh trip to the NCAAs in the last nine years, and the Lions will look to post another successful season in the highly competitive West Coast Conference.
For the 2005 Lions, an at-large invitation to the NCAA Volleyball Championship served as proof that LMU was worthy of the attention it received when the AVCA dubbed it one of its "Rodney Dangerfield" teams. The AVCA assigned the nickname when the Lions did not get the respect they deserved in the national polls after posting wins like a pair of road victories over then-ninth-ranked Hawaii and 20th-ranked San Diego. Both wins snapped significant winning streaks for the Lions' victims and caught the AVCA's attention.
But a tough postseason draw once again awaited the Lions at the 2005 NCAAs, as LMU was sent to Salt Lake City, Utah, in a bracket with Utah State, Arizona, and host Utah. There, the Lions fell to the host Utes in the first round.
Head Coach Steve Stratos
Head Coach Steve Stratos completed his 16th campaign at the helm of the program with a 16th straight winning season. In his time at LMU, Stratos has led the Lions to nine 20-win seasons and 11 postseason appearances. Stratos has posted a career record of 324-153, the most victories in LMU volleyball history and second among current WCC coaches. In league action, he owns a mark of 157-67, good for a winning percentage over .700. With 157 career conference victories, Stratos again ranks second among WCC coaches. The 2006 season will see Stratos coach his 500th career match.
Class of 2005
With the departure of graduating seniors Dina DeBernardi, Michelle Look, Krista Houseman, and Audrey Francis, the Lions will have some major roles to fill. Most notably, the Lions will be without the leadership of three-time captain and All-WCC honorable mention recipient DeBernardi. Along with DeBernardi, who finished her LMU career ranked in 10 different all-time categories, both Look (career dig average) and Houseman (season attack percentage) also worked their way into the LMU record book.
The 2006 LMU Lions
The Lions will look to co-captains Sandy Krone and Heather Hughes to continue the legacy of 16 straight winning campaigns that the Class of 2005 left behind. Hughes, the 2005-06 LMU Co-Female Athlete of the Year and first-team All-WCC selection will be the primary option in the team's offense at opposite. Krone, the 2005-06 LMU Female Strength Athlete of the Year, will return as a strong candidate for the starting job at middle blocker.
Stratos and his staff will look down the bench to a roster that includes five new options in one transfer and four freshmen players. Junior Ashley Dutro joined the LMU program as a transfer from 2005 Big West Co-Champion UC Santa Barbara, where she was the starting setter for the Gauchos. She ranked fourth in her conference with 12.00 assists per game in 2005.
"In Ashley, we're getting a two-year veteran who has experience playing at a high level of Division I volleyball," Stratos said. "She has been very successful and has done a great deal of winning as a starter on a championship team."
The freshman incoming class is highlighted by a pair of standouts in Megan Nash and Becky Stehling. Nash joins the Lions after a high school career at Notre Dame Academy, while Becky Stehling hails from Austin, Texas and Bowie High School.
Nash is a 6-0 middle blocker/outside hitter who earned All-CIF and All-Sunshine League honors each of her four seasons, including selections to the first-teams the last three years. She was named CIF Division III Player of the Year after leading her team to the CIF Division 3A championship in 2005.
"Megan is a great all-around volleyball player who has a lot of experience, both indoors and on the beach," Stratos said. "She has the ability to play any one of three positions at the net, including outside hitter, middle blocker, and opposite. Megan also possesses advanced ball-control skills and could very well develop into a primary serve-receive passer."
Stehling was a three-time first-team all-district and all-conference selection after starting on her varsity team all four seasons. The 6-1 middle blocker was also a two-time All-Centex team selection.
"Becky is a very gifted natural athete," Stratos said. "She is a quick jumper and has an impressive vertical jump. Becky is a pure middle blocker who has the speed to close the block and the explosiveness to become a major offensive threat. She has already developed a variety of attacks which makes it difficult for opponents to defend her."
Morgan Kelly and Tina Moger join the newcomer class after standout high school careers of their own. Kelly was a three-time All-Pioneer League selection and team MVP while at Palos Verdes High School. Moger was named Kauai Interscholastic Federation Player of the Year as a sophomore at Kauai High School.
The 2006 LMU Lineup
The five newcomers join a program that returns five starters plus the libero, losing just two starters to graduation. Though the 2006 Lions were picked to finish fifth in WCC play, Stratos feels the versatility of this year's players allows the coaches to put the best six players on the floor at one time, and that could mean exciting things for Lion fans.
Krone is among the most notable middle blockers on the Lions' roster, after a strong spring season at the position. That will most likely be the co-captain's role, although she has shown the coaching staff that she can also play other positions.
Returners Jania Motton, Erin Downey, and Lindsay Banas will likely also see time in the middle this season. When healthy, Motton has had an impact for the Lions in the past, as her play last season earned her a spot on the 2005 Sacramento State All-Tournament team. She leads the returning blockers, averaging .79 blocks per game in 2005.
Downey also stepped up when called upon in 2005, recording season-highs 16 kills and seven blocks in back-to-back matches.
Newcomers Nash and Stehling will also offer their talents at the middle blocker position.
Lion fans will enjoy the battle on the court for the starting setter job, because no matter what Stratos and his staff decide, they cannot go wrong. Dutro offers new possibilities after running the offense at conference champion UC Santa Barbara last season. But coaches and fans won't forget the contributions of returning starter sophomore K.C. Walsh, who tallied 995 assists and six double-doubles last season.
While Dutro and Walsh will likely share the majority of the setting duties, Hughes and senior Cat Svorinich may each have turns at the helm of the offense as well. Hughes shared the job with Walsh last season and became the only WCC player to record a statistical triple-double in 2005, doing it five times. Svorinich saw some time at the position in the spring and her setting skills caught the attention of the coaching staff.
Familiar faces return to the Lions this year at outside hitter. Led by WCC All-Freshman selection Emily Day and Christianna Reneau, the returners give the coaches many strong options outside. Day recorded double-digit kills in 14 of LMU's final 17 matches. Reneau reached the double-digit kill mark in 20 of 30 matches while leading the Lions in serving percentage (.961).
Other options outside include newcomers Kelly and Nash, and returners Downey, Krone, and Motton.
Hughes, who shared the setting duties last season with Walsh, will likely return to her full-time role at opposite this season. The first-team all-conference selection is a spark-plug for the Lions, and brings her all-around game to the court for LMU.
Krone, while projected to see most of her time in the middle, also gives the coaches options at opposite.
Like the setter position, the battle is on for the starting libero job. Lauren Kirk is one possibility, after earning the job at the end of her rookie campaign in 2005. She tallied double-digit digs in six matches, including LMU's final four matches of the regular season.
The other favorite for the position is the newcomer Nash, who was orignally labled as a middle blocker or outside hitter. In preseason workouts, the 6-1 Nash showed strong passing abilities and will now make a run for the starting job.
Another option in the backcourt is the senior Svorinich, who brings strong serving skills to the court along with her defensive play.
Returner Kiera Reilly, along with newcomers Moger and Kelly, will also likely see time as defensive specialists for the Lions.
Lion fans always see a high-octane schedule for LMU volleyball, and this year will be no different. The Lions will play seven matches against teams ranked in the 2006 AVCA Preseason Top-25 poll. Six of these seven matches will come during WCC play, as the Lions play in one of the top volleyball conferences in the nation. For three straight seasons, at least half of the WCC programs qualified for the NCAA postseason. In 2003 and 2005, the WCC sent five of eight teams to the NCAAs.
"Every year, we attempt to play a high-powered schedule and once again, we feel we've accomplished this with our 2006 schedule," Stratos said. "Beginning with our two tournaments at home and continuing with our competitive conference schedule, fans will experience the best of Division I college volleyball."
The Lions open the 2006 schedule this weekend at the Arizona State Tournament. LMU's first match will be Friday, August 25 at 5:00 p.m. against Utah Valley State.