August 23, 2007

Season Preview: Broncos Eye 10th Consecutive NCAA Bid

Aug. 23, 2007

SANTA CLARA, Calif. - During the past eight seasons under head coach Jon Wallace, Santa Clara volleyball has reached new heights, making eight straight NCAA Tournament appearances and qualifying for the program's first-ever Final Four. After winning 47 matches over the past two seasons, the Broncos again enter the season as one of the teams to beat in the West Coast Conference and with a No. 24 ranking in the AVCA Poll. However, the team must overcome some key losses and one major question mark to again take their place as one of the top teams in the country.

"The expectations this year are no different than any other year," said Wallace. "We have a talented team with a lot of experience in big matches. We want to win the league and get back to the tournament and see what happens from there."

Wallace will again count on the staff of Dustin Moore, Will Yuen and Matt Lyles to assist him in 2007. Moore begins his second year as associate head coach, and Yuen moves up to the second assist position after two years as the volunteer assistant coach. Lyles remains on the staff, but will move into the volunteer assistant position.

"To be able to keep the same staff together for the past three years has really been a big reason for our success," said Wallace. "Dustin, Will and Matt contribute to all aspects of the program and have been instrumental in the development of the players both personally and on the court."

On the court, SCU returns a strong nucleus of talent, including five starters from a year ago. However, in order to get back to the top of the WCC, which SCU won in 2005, the Broncos will have to overcome the loss of two seniors, three-time All-WCC First Team outside hitter Kim McGiven and middle blocker Megan Pura, who had a solid senior season in 2006. SCU went 20-8 and 9-5 in the WCC a year ago to earn the program's 12th NCAA Tournament appearance. McGiven finished her career with 1,327 kills and a 3.46 kill average to place fifth and fourth in those categories respectively. Pura, meanwhile provided a strong option in the middle for the Broncos and had a career high 103 kills to go along with 56 blocks.

Replacing those seniors is one of the most decorated classes in program history. Middle blocker Anna Cmaylo, setter Crystal Matich and libero Caroline Walters have combined for three All-American honors, three All-Pacific Region awards and five All-WCC recognitions in their careers.

Cmaylo is one of two players in program history to twice be named an All-American after earning AVCA All-American honorable mention status a year ago. The Napa, Calif. native set a school record with a .405 hitting percentage last season, while putting down 377 kills and recording 109 blocks. She currently ranks in the Top 10 in program history in five different categories. Unfortunately for the Broncos, Cmaylo is the biggest question mark heading into the season, as she is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery that has her season in doubt.

"Anna is one of our captains and no matter what her playing status is, she will have a key role for us," said Wallace. "She is probably our best leader and the team will count on her experience."

Entering her senior season, Matich is hoping to get back to the form that earned her All-America honors as a sophomore. Last season, her year was interrupted by a stress fracture that forced her to miss nine matches. When healthy, Matich is one of the best setters in the country and the Broncos will look to her to run a new offense in 2007. She currently ranks fifth all-time in assists in school history with 2,949 in her career for an 11.39 assist average.

Along with attempting to capture another WCC crown, Walters also has a lot to play for in 2007, as she is within striking distance of setting the program's all-time record for digs. The two-time All-WCC honoree enters her final season with 1,456 digs and needs 405 more to surpass Lia Young, who posted 1,860 digs from 1990-93. She holds the single match records for three-game and four-game matches. As the starting libero the past three seasons, Walters has provided spectacular defense as well as a confidence on the court that has sparked her teammates.

"Both Caroline and Crystal really need to step up for us to have a successful season," noted Wallace. "They have had great careers to this point, but we are asking even more of them this season. When healthy, Crystal is one of the most dynamic setters in the country, while Caroline is a great competitor and now is her time to step into a leadership role."

The talent does not stop with the three seniors, however, as the Broncos boast talent all over the court and all the way down to the freshmen class. However, unlike previous seasons, the lineup could fluctuate until everyone settles into their roles.

The team is particularly loaded on the outside with junior Brittany Lowe, along with sophomores Lindsy Evans and Nina Sevastopoulos and incoming freshman Krista Kelley, who had an outstanding prep career. Lowe was the WCC Freshman of the Year in 2005 and was also named to the Palo Alto Regional All-Tournament team as a freshman. She appeared in all 60 matches her first two seasons and already has compiled 660 kills in her career.

Evans showed her versatility last year as a freshman, as she stepped in as the starting setter when Matich was sidelined. The opposite hitter played in all 28 matches, starting 21 times to earn a spot on the WCC All-Freshman Team. Along with her 139 kills, she also placed second on the team with 470 assists.

Sevastopoulos arrived last season from Los Gatos and provided depth on the outside, but this year, she will be counted on to play an expanded role. She finished her first season with 61 kills and had some flashes of brilliance, including a career high 18 kills against Gonzaga. The newest addition to the Broncos long line of talented outside hitters is Krista Kelley, who comes to SCU from Sandy, Utah. At 6-1, Kelley has the height and leaping ability to contribute immediately to Wallace's squad. She helped Brighton High School capture Utah's 5A state title and was named the state's Gatorade Player of the Year.

Another freshman, Alex Scoffone, will also compete right away for a starting spot. From nearby Lincoln High School in San Jose, Scoffone could start right away at the middle blocker position.

Junior Nichole Clark and sophomore Lauryn Dowd have played outside in the past but will probably find themselves in the middle this year. Clark appeared in 25 matches last year and had 96 digs as well as 19 blocks. Dowd will likely fill a similar role, spending time in the middle depending on the health of Cmaylo. The San Jose native had a solid first season on the Mission Campus and is aiming for an even bigger role this year.

Taylor O'Brien and Michelle Luxton are both defensive specialists who are aiming for impact junior seasons. O'Brien provided excellent play off the bench last year, appearing in 27 matches and making 112 digs, while Luxton made nine appearances in her sophomore season.

Pushing for starting for a starting position on the outside and at libero is redshirt freshman Kim Courtney. Courtney, a Santa Barbara resident, missed her first season with a knee injury, but could play a role this year defensively after undergoing a successful rehabilitation program.

As they do nearly every season, SCU begins the season with an extended road trip prior to getting the home slate underway. However, the schedule becomes more favorable following tournaments in Idaho, Florida and Hawaii in the early season. SCU plays 13 of its final 21 matches in the friendly confines of the Leavey Center, beginning with four matches in four days in mid-September. After playing UC Davis on Sept. 13, the Broncos host the Santa Clara Tournament from Sept. 14-16, taking on three teams that made the 2006 NCAAs, California, UC Santa Barbara and Notre Dame.

"Our tournament has three top-level teams this year," said Wallace. "Cal is always a very good team and Notre Dame is a Top 20 team also. Santa Barbara is a high-profile program, so none of those matches will be easy. Overall, we are excited to have so many home dates this year because we never felt like we got into a rhythm last year at home with only eight matches at the Leavey Center."

The non-conference schedule also includes home matches at the Leavey Cetner against San Jose State, UNLV and a tough road contest at Sacramento State.

The Broncos, who were ranked No. 24 in the preseason AVCA Poll, were picked to finish third in the tough WCC in a preseason coaches poll, behind San Diego and Pepperdine. Along with the challenge presented by the Toreros and Waves, the remaining teams in the conference have all improved with as many as six teams competing for the top spots in league play.