Women's Volleyball Preview: 'Eaters seeking turnaround

The UC Irvine women's volleyball team approaches Friday's season opener at Xavier relatively free of injuries. There is, however, a significant outbreak of amnesia that Coach Paula Weishoff believes can be the program's best medicine.

Conveniently, there is much about the Anteaters' recent past that is thoroughly forgettable, though last year's 14-16 record was the best of a run of four straight losing seasons that followed a 22-8 mark in Weishoff's first season as coach in 2009.

In those previous four seasons, UCI is 43-79, 17-49 in the Big West Conference. Last season featured a 5-0 start, but the team fell into a downward spiral that Weishoff said was spurred by the recall associated with previous failure.

"We had a chance to jump into the top half of the conference, but I think we held ourselves back thinking about the past," Wieshoff said of a 5-11 conference mark that left the 'Eaters in seventh place in the nine-team Big West. "This group is ready to move past that. [The players] want it to be different. They want to focus on what we are doing now and getting better. This team wants to create a new identity, including new bonds and new UCI-isms. It's a different vision, which is really cool."

In addition to the new philosophy, Weishoff said creating a set lineup as early as last spring could help foster greater clarity and a unison of purpose.

"I feel like we have a better environment," said Weishoff, whose squad was picked to finish fifth in the Big West preseason coaches poll. "People know where they are and there is much more emphasis on creating a unit."

Asked to identify her best player this season, Weishoff paused only briefly, before voicing what is now the party line.

"My starting seven," Weishoff said. "Everyone adds something unique. One of my players said this is the best team chemistry we've had since she arrived and I can see that. We'll see what happens when we encounter adversity and some losses, but I think we're in a good place. I like this group a lot. We're more mature, calmer, and there is an intensity in everything that we do."

Among those solidly defined as starters are sophomores Shelley Anderson and Cassidy Pickrell, who were Big West All-Freshman Team honorees last fall at setter and outside hitter, respectively.

Anderson averaged nearly nine assists per set and was third on the team with 233 digs.

The 6-foot-1 Pickrell had 245 kills in 2013, topped only by then-senior Aly Squires and 6-3 outside hitter Marisa Bubica.

Bubica, who received honorable mention in all-conference voting, had 318 kills last season, 19 fewer than Squires. Bubica represents the team's biggest thunder at the net, according to her coach.

"[Bubica] has the heaviest arm, but I think we have a lot of artillery," Weishoff said.

Bubica's .240 hitting percentage last season ranked second on the team and is tops among the returners.

Allison Lee, a 6-0 senior, shifts from outside hitter to opposite after producing 156 kills last season, while 6-4 senior Arielle Manz (163 kills and 1.19 blocks per set to rank No. 3 in the conference in 2013) and 6-0 freshman Dani Geiger, who redshirted last season, are set to start at middle blocker.

Manz, who had previously taken a redshirt year, had planned to complete her eligibility after last season, Weishoff said. But she changed her mind and, along with team captain Bubica, has provided strong leadership.

Arden Davis, a 5-4 sophomore, is the returning starter at libero, while Molly Yoder, a 5-9 senior, should also contribute as a defensive specialist. Davis led the team with 377 digs last fall, while Yoder produced 222.

Hannah Nabbout, a 5-7 senior, is another defensive specialist who should contribute after adding 190 digs to help the 'Eaters rank No. 49 nationally with 16.3 digs per set in 2013..

Sophomores Sydney Wright and Victoria Dennis, 6-1 and 6-3 respectively, could also contribute after being slowed by minor health setbacks, Weishoff said.

UCI aims to continue to improve its attack after hitting .214 as a team last season, which ranked No. 131 among 328 Division I programs. UCI ranked No. 161 in 2012, No. 287 in 2011 and No. 279 in 2010 in that category.

UCI hit .300 or better only five times in 2013, only once in its final 20 matches.

UCI's 1.49 aces per set ranked No. 39 in the nation last season, with Pickrell (29) and Anderson combining for 57 on the campaign.

The Anteaters begin play in the Queen City Classic at host Xavier on Friday at 4 p.m. UCI then meets Cincinnati and Duquesne in the same event on Saturday at the University of Cincinnati.

UCI opens its home schedule Sept. 5 against Idaho, the first of four matches spanning three days of the UCI tournament.

The Anteaters begin Big West play Sept. 26 against visiting Long Beach State, which finished fourth last season behind tri-champions Hawaii, Cal State Northridge and UC Santa Barbara.

"I feel like we can challenge those in the top four [in conference]," Weishoff said.

UCI will split its 12 home matches between Crawford Court and the Bren Events Center.

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