Sept. 23, 2004
By Alison Fleck
The Santa Clara
For the first time in six years, head coach Jon Wallace is coaching a team lacking senior leadership. However, he is confident that his five freshmen will step up and add something to the program despite having a tough 2004 schedule. The young Broncos are currently ranked No. 17 nationally.
Wallace says not only are his returning players really good this year, but he also anticipates the freshmen will make an impact right away.
"Our freshmen are incredible," Wallace said. "They are all great athletes, all great volleyball players. And I think that they are going to help lead us in a really good direction to accomplish our goals, which are to win conference and to advance far into the NCAA tournament."
Freshmen middle blocker Annalisa Muratore and libero Caroline Walters are starters, while Anna Cmaylo plays in the middle and Crystal Matich splits time as the setter. Although the freshmen were a bit nervous to start for the Division I team, they immediately filled the shoes of those who had left, including former First Team All-WCC selections Kelli Sousa and Becky Potter.
Sousa's replacement, Crystal Matich, is excited for the season, but also admitted to being a bit nervous for the first game.
"It was overwhelming," she said. "The pace of the game was faster. But I've been playing volleyball for so long that it was just fun to be back on the court."
Entering the season, the Broncos boast the ninth best freshmen class in the nation, as ranked by PrepVolleyball.com. Junior and outside hitter Cassie Perret agrees with Coach Wallace that the freshmen have made a huge impact by starting.
"The two middles are doing an excellent job filling in for Becky Potter and Becky Beniek," she said.
At the Adidas Invitational on Sept. 17 and 18, Muratore showed that talent isn't necessarily driven by graduation class. She posted a match-high 19 kills, helping to defeat Texas Christian and improve the Broncos' record to 7-2. She was also named the tournament's MVP.
"I knew that Jon expected me to step up as a freshman because there were no senior middle blockers," Muratore said.
And in fact, Muratore feels the lack of seniors has actually improved the team's chemistry.
"It makes a difference with no seniors because they don't treat us like freshmen, but instead like we are all the same age," she said. "And that helps us feel like we're all at the same level and can play together."
The Broncos opened up the season ranked No. 22, from there they notched consecutive wins over Sacramento State, Arkansas and Pacific. They improved to No. 17 in the American Volleyball Coaches Association poll after sweeping Southwest Missouri State in Honolulu. The Broncos are currently No. 7 in the nation in blocks per game, at 3.5.
However, the Broncos are soon scheduled to face the nation's best, including games against No. 11 Hawaii, No. 3 UCLA, No. 12 Stanford and No. 16 Pepperdine. In preseason games, Santa Clara held its own against Hawaii and UCLA, which should prepare them for the conference schedule beginning in October.
The league crown will be challenging, as six of the eight conference schools advanced to the postseason last year. Saint Mary's, up until this last weekend, was undefeated and had beaten Stanford, a former Top-10 team. Pepperdine also awaits.
Assistant Coach Dustin Moore elaborated on the number of quality teams contending for the WCC title.
"There's about four or five teams that could win the WCC this year and we're right in there. It's just a matter of continuing to get better."
None of the coaches could deny that Potter, Biniek and Sousa were a special group. But with that chapter now closed, a healthy change is welcome. Wallace explains that with no specific captains, there are different people leading in different things, allowing the team to come together to be a successful unit.
"The harmony is great and chemistry is being worked out," Wallace said. "The freshmen group is talented and just needs to get seasoned, while the older group is talented and seasoned."
All that the team needs is a little more time, but Wallace isn't too concerned.
"This year I think we're ahead of schedule so we're really excited in where we can go," Wallace said. "The younger girls have improved a great deal in the first month so we are able to progress in what we are teaching, which in simple terms, we are able to do more advance stuff earlier."
Santa Clara will end their seven match road trip on Friday when they take on rival San Jose State. A home game is to follow on Sept. 28, when they will face Cal. Wallace is hopeful about the matches to come.
"I think we will be even better at the end," Wallace concluded. "That translates into competing for the conference championship and having a good run in the NCAA Tournament."