Four days before her team was set to open the 2010 season, UC Irvine women's volleyball coach Paula Weishoff struggled with an answer to the question of how the Anteaters would fill the biggest void in a lineup that had the best winning percentage in the program's history last fall.
But while the inquiry about which one or two, or four players will step into the setter role handled the past four seasons by now-departed Taryn Robertson is indeed pressing, it still may not be the foremost question on Weishoff's mind.
The three-time Olympian, whose first season at the UCI helm produced a 22-8 record, an unprecedented three tournament titles, a share of second place in the Big West Conference and a top ranking of No. 18 in the nation, is perhaps most preoccupied by a bigger question facing the Anteaters this season.
Actually, it has been the question Weishoff was most anxious to answer ever since she took the job: How good can the Anteaters get?
"I went hard," Weishoff said of a schedule that includes eight teams that played in the NCAA Tournament last season. "I scheduled hard. This will tell us what we need to do if we really want to build this program. It's going to tell us where we are and where we stand. We need to play these teams if, one, we're going to get better, and, two, if we want to attract the top kids … Maybe we're playing teams that are too good for us, though, right now, I can't say that; nobody can say that. But we're going to schedule people who are better than us, so we can get better.
"We're getting better and I think we could be really good."
Perhaps no team in the Big West has a better duo of outside hitters than seniors Kari Pestolesi and Juliane Piggott, both of whom earned first-team all-conference laurels and received honorable mention in All-American voting last season.
Starting middle blockers Alex Hauser and Riley Cropper, as well as starting libero Kristin Winkler, who made the conference's All-Freshman team, also return, though improved depth will have all three working to protect their playing time.
Still, whether the Anteaters are to hang with their more established rivals, some of whom will be among the eight visitors to play in the Bren Events Center this season, might just depend on how things shake out at setter.
"The biggest thing is losing Taryn," Weishoff said. "We have four setters in the mix, battling it out."
Weishoff said the lack of a clear floor leader has helped prompt a shift from the five-one offense to a six-two scheme, in which two setters are on the floor sharing distribution duties.
"A six-two might give us a lot of options," Weishoff said. "It takes a little bit of heat off our outside hitters and gives us three or four options in every rotation. And we seem to have our passing solidified with our three best passers. I think it's a pretty good system, and we'll see how it goes in a real match. We can always go back to the five-one."
Just who is pulling the trigger in whatever offense the 'Eaters settle on has yet to be determined.
Sophomore Marissa Alvarez had 82 assists in 13 sets last season, but her offseason was hampered by a broken arm. Senior Ashley Bosza played only one set in 2009, while Lauren Allen, who played for Weishoff at Concordia, redshirted last season. Another candidate is freshman Mary Carls.
"We think we have a pretty good idea," Weishoff said of the initial pecking order at setter. "There is still a little bit of up and down [play] and people moving back and forth."
Pestolesi and Piggott figure to make whoever is providing the sets look better.
Pestolesi, who despite being only 5-foot-11 is one of the more physical players on the West Coast, is pounding away as well as ever, Weishoff said, even after offseason shoulder surgery.
"Honestly, she hits the ball as hard as she hit it before," Weishoff said. "She may fatigue just because she hasn't been playing all summer long. But her defense and passing and all the other intangibles, the small things she brings, are fantastic for our team."
Pestolesi led the team in kills (437) aces (41) and was second on the team in digs (442) last season and enters this season ranked fourth in UCI career annals in kills (1,301) and fifth in digs (1,139) and aces (116).
The 6-2 Piggott, a Corona del Mar High product who began her career at UCLA, blasted 353 kills last season and led the team with 13 solo blocks. She spent the summer with the USA A2 Blue team, but is currently battling a sore back.
"She hasn't practiced in about a week, so she may not be ready for the season opener [Friday against host Washington State in the Nike Cougar Invitational that continues with two matches Saturday]," Weishoff said.
Weishoff, however, said opposing blockers will not be able to fixate on the two big guns outside.
Hauser, a 6-2 junior, has improved greatly from last season, when she had 168 kills while posting a .344 hitting percentage, second best in the Big West.
"Hauser has made a big jump, even from the spring to now," Weishoff said. "She's kind of starting to get the rhythm of the game."
Cropper, a 6-0 senior, is among those who have benefited from Weishoff's year-round conditioning emphasis, while freshmen Shannon Fleming, a 2009 Under Armour All-American at Archbishop Mitty in Northern California, and the 6-3 Arielle Manz add depth in the middle that wasn't there last season.
Senior outside hitter Larissa Nordyke could be headed for a breakout season, Weishoff said, while 6-1 freshman Aly Squires may start the opener at opposite.
Freshman Shaina Olson could also contribute outside, while Taylor Smith should do the same at opposite, Weishoff said.
And while Winkler led the team with 479 digs last season, Weishoff said redshirt freshman Sarah Wilder and sophomore Justyne Bonomi could also see time at libero.
UCI, which plays its first eight matches on the road before playing host to San Diego on Sept. 14, was picked to finish second in the Big West, behind Long Beach State.
The 'Eaters open conference play Sept. 24 at home against Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.