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Matadors’ Price Says Volleyball Poll Is Rank

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Don’t mention one preseason NCAA Division I men’s volleyball poll to Cal State Northridge Coach John Price.

The rankings in the February issue of Volleyball magazine do not include the Matadors among the nation’s best teams, but does state, “if All-American Oliver Heitmann returns to Cal State Northridge the Matadors will break into the top 10.”

The magazine didn’t do its homework, Price says. Heitmann, a 6-foot-7 middle blocker from Germany, has been back in the Valley since August and appears to be better than ever, for that matter, according to the coach.

As a junior last season, Heitmann led the Matadors with 569 kills, 36 solo blocks and 136 total blocks. There was a question regarding his senior season at Northridge because he rejoined the German National team during the summer and wasn’t certain he would return.

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“I quit the German team because I had problems with the coach,” Heitmann said. “So I decided to come back and improve my English.”

The Matadors open the season today at the UC Santa Barbara Collegiate Invitational, which also features some of the country’s best teams--UCLA, Stanford and USC. The Matadors’ home opener is Jan. 31 against Cal State Long Beach.

Heitmann is expected to help Northridge improve on last season’s finish. The Matadors (17-10) lost to Pepperdine--a team they defeated twice during the regular season--in the first round of the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation tournament.

“It was a miserable experience,” Price said. “We just came out flat.”

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With top gun Heitmann back, Price coach believes Northridge can return to the Final Four. The Matadors were a Final Four team in 1993.

“I’m not going to deny that I had my own personal doubts about him returning,” Price said. “He told me he’d let me know by July. I’m glad he’s back, but I figure if you don’t want to be here, you shouldn’t be.”

Heitmann is expected to play a key role in the Matadors’ success this season. As the team’s most-experienced and best all-around player, he is also expected to provide leadership.

“He brings international volleyball experience and a lot of talent to an otherwise pretty young team,” Price said.

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The team’s other starting middle blocker is Jon Baer, who transferred to Northridge from Pepperdine and was a starting outside hitter. The 6-5 senior switched positions to make room in the starting lineup for promising sophomore outside hitter Jason Hughes of Royal High.

As a freshman last season, Hughes led the Matadors with 25 aces.

Price believes switching Baer from his natural position could be risky, but he expects the gamble to pay off.

“It makes us more versatile offensively with both of them in the game,” Price said. “It also puts a lot of pressure on blockers.”

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Returning outside hitters Peter Piexoto and Collin Smith also will play big roles in the team’s success, Price says.

Piexoto, a 6-5 senior, finished second last season in service aces (23) and digs (227). Smith, a 6-4 sophomore, led the Matadors in digs (260) and finished second in solo blocks (15).

“This is a much better team than last year,” Heitmann said. “We’re more flexible offensively because we have more choices and a better setter.”

Until recently, one of Price’s concerns was finding a replacement for Gary Reznick, last season’s starting setter who finished second in school history with 3,530 assists.

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Price said Travis Ferguson, a redshirt sophomore and a transfer from UC San Diego, has looked impressive in recent workouts.

Ferguson, a high school teammate of Hughes, was a member of two Southern Section championship teams at Royal. A 6-footer, he is considered short for a setter in Division I, but he is quick and aggressive, according to Price.

“We knew he could be good, but he’s exceeded our expectations,” Price said. “He’s a lot better than we thought he would be. . . . We thought setter would be a question mark till the end of the season.”

Justin Hambleton will be Ferguson’s backup. The 6-6 freshman from Fresno was an All-Northern Yosemite League pick as a senior at West Clovis High last season. He is a left-hander who is expected to play extensively this year.

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While Price says that MPSF rival UCLA is unquestionably the nation’s best team and Stanford is a close second, he believes Northridge is among the elite.

“We’re going to be pretty good,” Price said. “It’s a joke that we’re not in the top 10.”


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