The setter is volleyball's equivalent of a quarterback or point guard.
That's why coaches are sometimes a little reluctant to turn over those key positions on offense to a freshman.
But Mary Ellen Murchison, Cal State Fullerton women's volleyball coach, had no hesitation about doing it this fall when Carolyn Kittell arrived.
"She has had tremendous exposure as a junior player, and that was good preparation for her," Murchison said. "I can't say she was totally prepared, but she was ready for the intensity and the quality of play on the Division I college level."
Kittell led Laguna Beach to the Southern Section Division I-AA title and was the Division I co-player of the year in 1996. She also was an outstanding club player. And she hasn't missed a beat since she made her Titan debut.
"It's been a step up from the level I've been playing, but I feel good about everything," Kittell said. "At first I didn't know what to expect, but I started feeling comfortable right away."
Kittell won a preseason position battle with Melissa Blacker, a senior who was good enough to rank second in assists and sixth in digs among the school's career leaders after three seasons. A year ago, when the Titans had their best season in school history (16-13), Blacker was fourth in the Big West Conference in assists with an average of nearly 12 a game.
"It's always hard to choose between two good players," Murchison said. "And Melissa had a big hand in getting us where we are. But we want to get to the next step, and we feel Kittell is the player to help us get there. We see her as our leader for the next four years."
Blacker moved into a utility role, and her versatility has helped provide depth, but she has been on the sidelines recently because of a torn ligament in her right elbow.
Kittell says Blacker has been very supportive. "She has a lot of college experience, and she's helped me a lot before she was hurt, as well as afterward," Kittell said.
Kittell might not have much college experience, but there's no question about her development in the last two years. She was named to all-tournament teams in Fullerton's first three tournament appearances and was named most valuable player in two of them.
One of the keys, she says, is her work with personal trainer Marv Marinovich.
"I became a lot stronger because of working with him," Kittell said. "The big thing was that he improved my vertical jump by about four inches. My upper body is also stronger now, and I think my endurance has improved."
Kittell is 5 feet 7, two inches shorter than anyone else on the team, and small by college volleyball standards. But Kittell believes she makes up for it with her speed, jumping ability and quickness.
"And she has great court savvy and leadership qualities," Murchison said.
Kittell started her career as an outside hitter, but quickly discovered it wasn't her position. "I was short and not that good," she said. "But when I moved to the setter position, I felt a lot more comfortable right away. I enjoy calling the plays and getting everyone fired up."
She says the decision to attend Fullerton was easy. "I liked the coaches, and I wanted to be part of a program that was going to be improving, and one that was going to surprise people," Kittell said.
Kittell believes that will happen this season, even though the team is relatively inexperienced.
"My goal before I leave is to win the Big West championship and make it to the NCAA tournament," she said. "And even though we're a young team this season, I think we'll beat some people that we're not expected to. I think we'll be nationally ranked in the next two years."
The basketball team has started preseason conditioning and will begin regular workouts with a Midnight Madness session Oct. 17. . . . Ronnie Dean, hired recently as an assistant by men's basketball Coach Bob Hawking, says he has no doubt about the challenge he faces. "I'm on the staff for one reason--to recruit good players," Dean said. He worked the last two years for a national scouting service, focusing primarily on the Midwest.
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Here's a look at key games this week for Cal State Fullerton:
* Women's soccer against Hawaii 7 p.m. Wednesday at Titan Stadium, and at USC 3 p.m. Friday.
* Men's soccer at Gonzaga 3 p.m. Friday, and at Washington 1 p.m. Sunday.