Women's Volleyball Preview: UCI aiming at relevance

Paula Weishoff is taking on double duty again this season, not only coaching the UC Irvine women's volleyball team, but also serving as the program's tour guide back to relevance.

After a 22-8 campaign in her first season at the Anteaters' helm in 2009, Weishoff's UCI teams are a combined 29-63, including 12-38 in the Big West Conference the last three years. Three straight eighth-place finishes in conference have decreased expectations to the point where being picked to finish fifth in the conference coaches' preseason poll was actually uplifting.

"I was very pleased with that and the girls were excited about it," Weishoff said of the poll, which tabs defending champion Hawaii to once again lead the way.

"Hey, one step at a time," Weishoff said of the apparent middle-of-the-road euphoria. "I still think everyone in our conference has a shot to win conference. [The poll] doesn't mean we are out of the mix. Let's start there and see what happens."

What happens is often determined by the events of the off-season and preseason. In this regard, Weishoff believes the Anteaters are bound for a turnaround from last season, when they went 11-22, 5-13 in conference.

"I'm living the dream right now," said Weishoff, who acknowledged that her split duties as assistant coach the last two years for the U.S. women's national team that won a silver medal at the 2012 Olympics, took away from UCI's renewal efforts. "I just like the atmosphere in the gym every day; the chemistry, the effort, the competitiveness and the coaching. It's all coming together and its nice to see. It has been the best preseason that we've had since I've been here."

In addition to Weishoff's undivided attention, change is apparent in all elements of the 'Eaters game. Not the least of the novelty are five freshmen who have already moved the competitive needle.

"They didn't blink," Weishoff said of the freshmen, led by 6-foot-1 outside hitter Cassidy Pickrell, who helped her Texas-based club team win the open 18s crown at the Junior Olympics this summer. "They came in and started competing and it has raised the level. It's really cool. It's fantastic."

Weishoff said the presence of the strong recruiting class helped motivate the returning players.

"[The returners] all worked incredibly hard in the off-season, because they knew the freshmen were going to push them," Weishoff said.

Among the returners being pushed are 6-1 senior outside hitter Aly Squires, 6-1 senior middle blocker Shannon Fleming and 6-3 sophomore outside hitter Marisa Bubica.

Squires has led the team in kills the last two seasons, while Bubica made the Big West All-Freshman team last season, when her 341 kills were 102 behind Squires to rank second on the team.

Fleming had 103 blocks and 24 aces, both of which ranked second on the team last season.

But, according to Weishoff, no starting spots are secure.

"The girls are making it tough on us coaches [to select a starting lineup]," Weishoff said.

In addition to the freshmen, 6-0 junior outside hitter Allison Lee is a newcomer with promise, having transferred from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

"Allison is doing a very nice job," Weishoff said. "All of our outside hitters are competing like champs."

Shelley Anderson, a freshman from Chino Hills, is battling senior Mackenzi Campbell, a Newport Harbor High product, for the setting duties.

There is also a battle at libero, where Kristin Winkler, UCI's lone first-team all-conference performer since Kari Pestolesi in 2010 and the conference's all-time digs leader, has graduated.

Junior Molly Yoder, junior Hannah Nabbout and freshman Arden Davis are the candidates to try to fill Winkler's big shoes.

Sydney Wright, a 6-1 sophomore, and Victoria Dennis, a 6-3 sophomore, are additional threats at the pin, though Weishoff said the team will set the middles and use the bic more this season.

Those middles include Fleming, 6-3 sophomore Ella Rosenfeld who led the team with 109 total blocks in 2012, 6-0 freshman Danielle Geiger and 6-4 junior Arielle Manz.

"I feel like every position is better," said Weishoff, who hopes to improve upon a .200 team hitting percentage from 2012, as well as 236 service errors, compared to 118 aces last season.

Weishoff, whose team opens against Texas A&M; Corpus Christi at the Pioneer Classic in Denver on Friday at 3 p.m., is most pleased with her squad's defense thus far.

"Our defense is incredible right now," Weishoff said. "It's just amazing to watch."

UCI completes tournament action on Saturday by taking on Air Force and host Denver.

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