Santa Clara (9-5), winners of five league titles including 2005 and '07, opens WCC play this weekend at home in Leavey Center. The Broncos host LMU (7-7) on Thurs., Sept. 30 at 7 pm and then Pepperdine (8-5) on Sat., Oct. 2 at 1 pm.
Santa Clara battled the injury bug during the non-conference slate with Katherine (Kat) Douglas hampered and unable to play 12 of the 14 preseason matches. Douglas is back at full-strength, playing in the 3-0 win over Seattle on Sunday; and head coach Jon Wallace pointed out over the weekend it'll take a few days for the team to adjust to her being back. In addition, freshman Megan Anders and sophomore Alexandra Palmer are also back after being out with an injury most of the preseason. "We're excited that Kat is back, she will add a lot to our team as far as offensive balance, better defensively. She is someone that played every point of every match last year for us, so as a sophomore, she carries a lot of experience. So right there she will help us out a lot," said Wallace.
A trio of sophomores leads the Broncos on offense and senior setter Emily Burke, who is No. 23 nationally with 11.07 apg. She also leads the team with 17 aces this season. Junior libero Bridget O'Hara leads the team with 4.82 dpg. Sophomore Lexi Williamson collected 2.86 dpg and junior Tanya Schmidt is hitting .302 with 1.93 kpg and .67 bpg.
"I am really pleased with the performances of Dana Knudsen, Kaliegh Durket and Kayla Lommori. All three of those kids carried a big load for us in this preseason and I thought they did a great job, and really every week got better and better, especially Kayla Lommori," said Wallace, "She really improved weekly, if not match by match and her hitting percentage has increased over the last week and that is something we are looking for her to do.
Santa Clara tops the WCC with opponents hitting just .179 and leads the league in digs with 16.11 pg. The Broncos are second in assists with 12.76 apg and third in kills with 13.51 kpg. Individually, Durket leads the WCC in kpg, Knudsen is second in the league in hitting percentage, Burke is third in apg and O'Hara is second in dpg.
Wallace likes his team right now, especially with the re-addition of Douglas, Anders and Palmer. "I like our fight; I think our team is a really united team," said Wallace. "We are going to be extremely competitive come this conference season, and so I like us in every match and I think we'll have great effort out there and compete real hard."
Wallace understands adding Douglas to the mix will change the on-court dynamics with less swings for each player, but this will work to the Broncos advantage in the long run. Wallace has talked in the past about the strong friendship that Douglas and Lommori have developed and that translate to each relying on the court as well. "Kat and Kayla are very good friends, and I think just for Kayla to have Kat on the court, gives her a sense of calm and that is [kind of] really good for Kayla," said Wallace. "They did work well in the off season together, not only on the court, but they worked out every single day together in the gym so it is kind of nice for Kayla to have her friend back to help her on the court, a sense of stability for her, which is really helpful. More importantly, Kayla's sets will probably decrease by about 20% because Kat is back and Kayla's passing a little bit will decrease, just because of the balance we have with Kat and so for right now, less for Kayla is going to be more for her. She is going to do much better with that."
Wallace said the team has been concentrating on improving in blocking and working on tougher serves, but has been pleased with the play of Knudsen and Schmidt in the middle. "Tanya Schmidt has incredible matches this year, where she is getting double digit kills on one error and hitting for high percentages. I think if anything, we'll open them up a little bit more, we'll have a little bit better balance, but we still expect to give them the ball as much as we can."
Entering WCC play Santa Clara could be a called a team in transition with a number of new bodies in the line-up. He said it showed in the match vs. Seattle, a 3-0 win last Sunday. "We need to continue to develop our go-to players, and Dana, and Kaleigh and Kayla; and Kat is a potential go-to player too. So the balance just wasn't there and the comfort level just wasn't there. I think Dana is still looking for every set, and needs to learn how to deal with less. It's great that she wants it, but it's just a different balance, and a different flow to the game that they have been used to over the first 14 matches."
In regards to WCC play, Wallace sees San Diego as the team to beat with two WCC Player of the Year in their starting line-up. "They have a great senior base team with those two out-sides, a middle, and a setter, so they have a lot of experience," added Wallace. "Saint Mary's, who won it last year, is very strong again. Pepperdine has tremendous talent and you will see them this Saturday. But I think we are ready. It's going to come down two things for us: one can we stay healthy, which we are anticipating, and two, did we learn the lessons necessary to win the conference, are we going to be tough enough? I think our execution will come and we'll get to a high level in the next week or so.
Wallace likes the schedule where Santa Clara plays five of its first seven matches at home to begin league play. "We loaded up on [a lot of] home games to open the first half of the season, which we are hoping to do well in and gain some confidence going into the second half and staying in the race to win it, the WCC. So we just need to get to a higher level of execution, and hopefully we've developed our style, our Bronco way of volleyball that's going to give us some toughness, and allow us to compete in every match."
Wallace also pointed out how important the Ruff Riders were to the team. "We are looking forward to having lots of support from the Ruff Riders this year. Our girls really like to play up to their enthusiastic level that they bring to our matches. They talk about it. We'll be out doing some tabling, working to get them here. We'll be doing special giveaways, hopefully, we'll be giving away t-shirts this year, and we'll be giving away other special kind of prizes because we believe if we get a good student following, our level of play will definitely go up."
Wallace added Ali Rambis has had a positive influence on the team as have both captains. "Emily and Bridget have done a great job for us; they have been really good leaders this year. They are playing at a real high level, which is great for us."