UCI looking to rebound

The 2010 season for the UC Irvine women's volleyball team wasn't so much a step backward as it was a free fall.

The Anteaters finished 8-22, 3-13 in the Big West Conference, which resulted in an eighth-place finish in the nine-team circuit, and ended a run of three straight winning seasons and three top-three conference finishes.

"It was kind of a weird year last year," said third-year coach Paula Weishoff, whose team is off to a 3-3 start heading into a tournament at New Mexico that begins Friday. "We underachieved a little bit and we didn't get on the right path. We had too many errors. You can't play at that level of error and expect to win."

Weishoff, who missed the first three matches while working as an assistant coach for the U.S. women's national team at the Pan American Games in China, said expectations are to recapture the form that propelled the Anteaters to a 22-8 mark in 2009. That season, UCI played Long Beach State in the conference finale with the Big West title at stake.

"You always want to improve from the [previous] season and where we were [in 2010] wasn't expected," Weishoff said. "I think we'll maybe have a better record than last year and definitely we're on the way up."

Conference coaches were less convinced, picking UCI to finish seventh in the preseason poll.

And the loss of Kari Pestolesi, a four-time first-team all-conference performer who completed her noteworthy career ranked second on the UCI career lists for kills (1,602), and digs (1,491), while ranking third in career aces (131), adds an additional challenge to the 2011 season.

"We definitely will miss Kari, which is a given," Weishoff said. "She's a great player and she's been great for UCI with her ball control, serving, hitting, and everything she brought to the court."

Weishoff said Pestolesi will join fellow UCI alums Taryn Robertson and Juliane Piggott on the same professional team in Switzerland this season.

Stepping in for Pestolesi as the team's primary offensive threat will be 6-foot-1 sophomore outside hitter Aly Squires. Squires, who started 11 matches last season and played in 78 sets, had 119 kills as a freshman.

But she earned all-tournament honors in the season-opening Aztec Invitational at San Diego State and her 85 kills thus far are 32 more than the No. 2 kill producer, 6-0 sophomore outside hitter Shaina Olsen.

"Aly is going to get a ton of sets and there is going to be a lot on her shoulders," Weishoff said. "She's got a powerful arm and she's a little taller that what the program has had in the past."

Height has been an emphasis in recruiting for Weishoff and her staff and the lineup reflects that commitment to a higher cause.

Alex Hauser, a 6-2 senior middle blocker, is joined by 6-1 sophomore middle Shannon Fleming. Marissa Bubica, a 6-2 freshman, is another outside hitter, while 6-0 junior Taylor Smith starts at opposite, Weishoff said.

Hauser, whose 26 starts last season are the most of any returner, led the team with 76 total blocks in 2010. Her 10 aces this season represent half of the team's total and she has 26 kills.

Fleming has 44 kills and Pauline Acres, a 6-0 outside hitter, has 34.

But UCI is hitting .182 as a team, only slightly better than a woeful .144 clip it finished at last season.

Sophomore Mary Carls (217 assists thus far) is triggering a faster offense after making 14 starts as a freshman.

And Kristin Winkler, a 5-10 junior libero, leads the team with 97 digs after ranking second in the Big West in that category last season. Winkler, a third-year starter who was also an all-tournament choice in San Diego, entered the season with 1,011 career digs.

Weishoff said freshman Molly Yoder, the younger sister of UCI men's All-American Cory Yoder, who graduated last spring, has added ball control in the back row.

Weishoff also said Ella Rosenfeld and Arielle Manz, a pair of 6-3 middles, are additional members of a strong freshmen class that should contribute.

Mackenzi Campbell, a sophomore setter out of Newport Harbor High who led Montana State with 565 assists last season before transferring, could also wind up contributing.

UCI, which plays its first eight matches on the road, has its home opener on Sept. 16 against Utah State at the Bren Events Center, in which it will play seven matches.

The 'Eaters open conference play Sept. 23 at Pacific and their first home conference match is Oct. 4 against Long Beach State, the coaches' preseason favorite to win the conference.

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