Aug. 21, 2012
LOGAN, Utah - Despite a new look to the Western Athletic Conference in 2012 with some departed teams being replaced by new teams, Utah State volleyball's focus and goals remain the same as they have been in each and every one of head coach Grayson DuBose's seven years at the helm of the Aggie program.
"Our over-riding goal has and always will be to compete and contend for a WAC Championship. That's what we focus on, and that's what we train for so that's always our goal. We want to win," DuBose said.
That focus will be spear-headed by a veteran-laden squad that features five starters and nine letterwinners from last year's team that went 12-17 on the season and finished tied for fourth-place in the WAC with a 7-7 league record. The five starters and nine letterwinners returning is USU's most since its WAC Tournament title and NCAA Tournament appearance season of 2010 when the Aggies had all six starters and 10 letterwinners return. Adding to the returners who played are two redshirt-freshmen, as well as three newcomers, including one junior college transfer and two freshmen, who are all expected to contribute right away and help Utah State contend for the conference crown.
The WAC will feature a new look this season, as traditional league powerhouse Hawai'i has left to the Big West Conference, while Fresno State and Nevada departed for the Mountain West Conference, which will be USU's home next year. The WAC now has newcomers Denver, Seattle, UT Arlington, UTSA and Texas State.
"We expect the WAC to be competitive," DuBose said. "I think it is a much better league than people have given it credit for over the years, and I've enjoyed competing in it. I'm going to miss the camaraderie amongst the coaches in this league, and I like the people that I've coached with and competed against. They're all really good people and good coaches."
USU will enter its final season in the WAC with five returning starters, as the Aggies' lone starter lost from a year ago is All-American Liz McArthur. DuBose is very optimistic about the make-up of this season's squad, which returns 63.7 percent of its kills (782/1,227), 70.6 percent of its points (1,159/1,640.5), 66.4 percent of its service aces (71/107), 60.3 percent of its digs (998/1,656), 78.8 percent of its blocks (467/593), and 93.6 percent of its assists (1,069/1,142) from the 2011 season.
"Last year, I thought we became a little one-dimensional and relied on Liz more than we probably should have. We just want to distribute better this season. You don't replace and you can't replace that kid, she's a great volleyball player," DuBose said.
Leading the returners are the senior trio of Josselyn White, Shay Sorensen and Kassi Hargrove, who are all three-year letterwinners and will be looked toward for veteran leadership on and off the court. White, an outside hitter, was among the WAC leaders statistically last year as she was ninth in kills (2.73), eighth in blocks (1.01) and seventh in points (3.45) per set. Sorensen, an opposite side hitter, was a second-team all-WAC selection last year after hitting .202 and averaging 2.57 kills, 0.71 digs and 0.86 blocks per set a season ago.
"Josselyn and Shay are going to be Josselyn and Shay; they're going to be consistent for a long period of time," DuBose said about the pair of seniors who were two of the four Aggies to play in all 29 matches last season and have combined for 159 total matched played in their three years together.
Hargrove, a setter, averaged 4.21 assists per set, and made continued improvement in the offseason entering her final year in an Aggie uniform.
Other statistical leaders returning for USU include sophomore setter Paige Neves, who ranked seventh in the WAC in assists at 8.83 per set on the way to being named to the WAC all-Freshman team, and sophomore middle blocker Kaitlyn VanHoff was fourth in the WAC in blocks at 1.19 per set. Neves added 2.48 digs per set as well as 16 service aces, second among the USU returners.
Senior middle blocker Alyssa Everett, who finished the season second in the WAC in blocks at 1.27 per set, will redshirt the 2012 season with a knee injury. While Everett's blocking will be missed, the Aggies have traditionally been solid as a team at the net, leading the WAC and ranking 10th in the NCAA in blocks last year at 2.79 blocks per set.
In addition to blocking, Utah State finished the 2011 season ranking second in the WAC in digs (15.05), sixth in hitting percentage (.168), seventh in kills (11.15), seventh in assists (10.38) and eighth in service aces (0.97).
DuBose also singled out the outside hitter tandem of sophomore Rachel Orr and junior Tumua Etimani for their significant progress throughout the spring and offseason, as well as contenders for filling the vacancy left by McArthur.
"We look to have Rachel Orr step up and fill some of that role, Tumua Etimani has been playing well. We just want to distribute more so we're not just going outside, outside, outside. That is one of the major areas of weakness that we identified in the spring and that we want to get better at so we don't have to count on one person quite as much," DuBose said.
Etimani played in 101 of 110 possible sets last season and is expected to make significant contributions this year as well as provide leadership as the only returning junior on the Aggies' roster.
Orr has dynamic athleticism which was enhanced by her being an all-WAC high jumper for the USU track & field team. Last season, Orr averaged 1.73 kills, 1.62 digs and 0.4 blocks per set, while adapting to the college game. DuBose will look toward Orr, as well as her fellow sophomores, opposite outside hitter Jamaica Alisa, Neves, libero Ashlan Rogers and VanHoff to step up in 2012.
"I really liked the improvement that our libero, Ashlan Rogers, made in the offseason. She's made some really nice strides technically. Now that last year's freshmen, Kaitlyn VanHoff, Paige Neves, Rachel Orr and Jamaica Alisa have more experience, I look for them to step up more. I look for them just to be better because they have experience," DuBose said. "All our returners made nice strides overall, both technically and tactically, and because all of them, but especially last year's freshmen, have a year under their belts and are going to be a lot better."
Rogers is the returning starter at libero, averaging 2.61 digs per set as well as leading the team with 23 service aces a season ago. DuBose has seen great improvement from Alisa and expects her to contribute from the outside hitter position this season.
Opposite side hitter Elle Brainard and middle blocker Shan England redshirted last season and both made significant improvements in the spring and offseason, and DuBuse expects them to make impacts for the Aggies as they continue to develop and progress.
Adding to the mix are three newcomers in junior college transfer Jocelyn Hobbs along with a pair of in-state signees in freshmen Candace Richins and McKell Staheli. Hobbs is a middle blocker who joins the Aggies from nearby Western Wyoming CC and gives the Aggies size, experience and talent at the net, after she helped the Mustangs to a 39-3 record and a runner-up finish at the 2011 National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) National Championships, including being named to the NJCAA Region IX all-Tournament team.
Richins, an outside hitter who comes to USU after a highly-decorated career at Davis (Utah) High School, was named a high school All-American by PrepVolleyball.com, one of just two players from the state of Utah and one of 150 players nationwide to be named a high school All-American by the publication. Last season, Richins was also named the Most Valuable Player of the state tournament in 2011 as she led the Darts to back-to-back region titles and the 5A tournament championship.
A libero, Staheli joins the Aggies after a standout career at Pleasant Grove (Utah) High School, where she was named the Region 4 Most Valuable Player in 2011. She also earned first-team all-state honors from both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News as a prep senior and was named the Deseret News' Defensive Most Valuable Player in 2011.
Just like the previous years in DuBose's tenure at the helm, the Aggies' schedule will be laiden with challenges against in-state competition as well as traditional powers. The Aggies will play a total of 28 matches during the regular season, including four against in-state opponents and three more against NCAA Tournament teams from a year ago.
Of those four match-ups against in-state teams, three will be at home as the Aggies host Utah, Southern Utah and Weber State in its own Utah State Invitational, sponsored by Gossner Foods, on Aug. 24-25 in its first weekend of competition. In all, USU will play 14 home matches this year inside the Dee Glen Smith Spectrum, a venue where it has gone 95-45 (.679) over the last 13 seasons.
NCAA Tournament teams on Utah State's upcoming schedule include a road match at Kansas State along with a home and home series against new Western Athletic Conference member Texas State who won the Southland Conference a year ago.
"I like our schedule a lot. I think it is a very nice, very competitive schedule that is going to challenge us, particularly our non-conference matches. We have matches against Kansas State, St. Mary's and San Diego State that will be especially challenging, and our home tournament is going to be really good as well," DuBose said. "There's some very tough competition, with some good in-state battles going on as well. I think it's going to be lots of fun; I think people are really going to enjoy watching us play this year."
As for the WAC, it will definitely have a different feel in 2012 as perennial power Hawai'i is now competing in the Big West Conference, while Fresno State and Nevada will compete in the Mountain West. New teams to the WAC this fall include Denver, Seattle, UT Arlington, UTSA and Texas State. In all, USU will play 18 league matches in 2012 after playing just 14 a year ago.
"I don't know a whole lot about the Texas schools, but they're all going to be really good. We played Texas State last year, and I know they're very good. I know UTSA is really good, and we've played UT Arlington over the years and they've always given us tough matches. Denver is going to be good and Seattle is going to be much improved. From top to bottom the league is going to be better," DuBose said. "Not playing Hawai'i is going to be a bummer because that is just a fun team to compete against, but I think the WAC is wide open."
With the talent, leadership, depth and experience, Utah State is hoping to take advantage of that opening in contending for the league title, providing its fans with entertaining volleyball to watch on the court and to be proud of the team off the court.
"I think people sometimes forget that we have these wonderful student-athletes who work hard, not just on the court but in the classroom and I think they really do embody what we say is the goal for college athletics," DuBose said. "We've earned an AVCA academic award and we have all these nice things going for us. I think our kids are good in the community, they're good athletes, they're good people and we really appreciate the support that we've received and look to continue that support even more so in the future."
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