Oct. 19, 2005
Santa Clara, Calif. - Traditionally, the Bay Area has been a hotbed for collegiate volleyball. Stanford University, the defending NCAA Champions, has won six national titles and Santa Clara University has had a history of winning seasons and numerous post-season berths. The Broncos, currently ranked No. 13 in the nation and sporting a 16-1 overall record, are on pace to earn their eighth consecutive NCAA Tournament invitation.
Aside from the two established powers in Stanford and Santa Clara, volleyball enthusiasts can choose to follow up-and-coming national programs like California and Saint Mary's, or cheer on other local teams that have experienced success in their own respective leagues, like San Jose State or San Francisco. It is no surprise then that the overall achievements of Bay Area schools have made the region such a popular place for volleyball fans.
"As far as volleyball in the Bay Area, I think it is one of the best places in the country talent-wise. You have Stanford, who has been winning national championships, but there are also strong schools like California, Santa Clara, Saint Mary's, San Jose State, and San Francisco," said Santa Clara head coach Jon Wallace. "Besides Northern California and Southern California, I don't know of a place in the country that has that kind of depth. You could drive on a Friday night and see ranked teams play in any of those spots. It's just very deep and there's good volleyball.
While the Bay Area may not have the draw of the beach and the sun like that of Southern California, Wallace believes that high-level recruits are attracted to the overall package of the university, including the academics, the location, and the student atmosphere. The stability of the volleyball programs is another factor that enhances the appeal of the area, as many of the coaches have been in place for a number of seasons.
"The universities definitely sell themselves. There are great academics and the location is unbeatable," said Wallace. "There is a lot of stability in the coaching. With the exception of the Saint Mary's coach, there's Rich Feller at Cal [seven seasons], John Dunning has been in this area at Pacific and Stanford [21 seasons], Craig Choate at San Jose State [13 seasons], and I've now been at Santa Clara for seven seasons. So there's a lot of stability in the area."
This weekend will be a chance for Santa Clara to be reminded of just how strong volleyball is in the Bay Area, as they continue their quest for a West Coast Conference championship and travel to San Francisco and Saint Mary's this Friday and Saturday. Both matches are slated to begin at 7 p.m. The Broncos are undefeated in league play, boasting a 5-0 record.
The Dons enter Friday's showdown with the Broncos sporting a 15-6 overall mark and 2-3 conference record. Last weekend, San Francisco went 2-0 against the Pacific Northwest, sweeping Portland 3-0 and edging out Gonzaga 3-2. Senior middle blocker KeLicia Shorts had a career-high 12 blocks, to go along with a match-high 23 kills, in the five-game thriller against the Bulldogs. Shorts is one of the most effective players for the Dons up at the net, averaging 3.39 kills and 1.33 blocks per game, while hitting at a .403 clip. Pacing San Francisco in the kill category is sophomore Kristin Hasselberg, who has collected 355 kills thus far in the season and her 4.55 kills per game average is one of the WCC's highest this season. Libero Brynn Maurer ranks second in the conference in digs per game, with 5.09 on the year. Jeff Nelson is in his third season as the head coach of San Francisco and is hoping to guide his team to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003.
"I think San Francisco is really tough. They are a well-coached team and [Nelson] demands a lot out of his teams. You know you are going to get a really fired up and well-coached team and anytime you have that, you're in for a battle," said Wallace. "They might not have some of the fire power that some top schools in the nation have, but they don't make a lot of mistakes and they definitely make you beat them. If you make errors or have an off night, they could steal one from you."
The Gaels currently own an overall record of 13-4 and a 4-1 mark in conference play. The lone defeat Saint Mary's suffered was to Gonzaga last weekend, dropping a 3-1 decision up at Spokane, Wash. Leading the squad is a trio of outside hitters: Missie Stidham, Kaui Salzman, and Cassandra Kolkka. Stidham and Salzman are among the league leaders in kills, with 4.68 and 4.06 kills per game, respectively, while Kolkka averages 2.94 kills and 2.48 digs per game. Defensively, Saint Mary's boasts the WCC's top blocking tandem in middle blockers Christina Kirk and Brittany Barker, as the duo averages 1.87 and 1.53 blocks per game, respectively. Kirk is ranked No. 4 in the country in blocks per game. Rob Browning is in his first year at the helm of the Gaels volleyball program, taking over for Jon Stevenson at the end of last season. In 2004, Saint Mary's had its best season in school history, posting a 25-4 record and advancing to the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament.
"I think Saint Mary's is a really good team, without a doubt. I've seen them on tape and they are very well coached. They have the same players back from last year and they want to win conference just as much as we do," said Wallace. "We lost both times last year in four and they make it hard on their opponents to play. If you look at their stats, they hold teams to their lowest hitting percentage in the conference. You really have to grind it out on the court because they never quit."