WALLA WALLA, Wash. - Fresh from one of the most successful seasons in school history, the resurgent Whitman College women's volleyball team is ready for another strong fall campaign.
The Missionaries rolled to their third consecutive winning season a year ago and placed fourth in the highly competitive Northwest Conference (NWC) with an 11-5 record, just two games out of first place. Whitman stayed in the hunt for a conference title until the final week of the season.
Much of that team returns this fall, although the Missionaries must replace all-conference players Barby Ream and Heather Cushing, both of whom graduated.
"We have had a very good recruiting year," fifth-year Whitman coach Dean Snider said. "We have two outstanding freshmen in Jill Huber and Elly Smith who can contribute immediately. They will play significant roles in propelling our program to the next level."
The newcomers join a roster stocked with talent and experience. The returning nucleus includes senior co-captains Kelly Williams, Val Hamm and Jeni Brown, each of whom was a major contributor a year ago. Others expected to play key roles this fall are juniors Allison Roth and Claire Novotny and skilled sophomore Megan Kanaga. Junior Kristin Carter and first-year players Denise Kirstein, Liz Nelson and Bryn Thorsen add more quality depth.
"We should have a well-balanced team," Snider said. "We have strong players in each position and good depth. We will try to play to that strength, as we did last year."
Williams, a 5-foot-11 outside hitter, paced Whitman's offense last year, spiking 306 kills in 99 games. Her average of 3.09 kills per game was the sixth-best mark in the NWC.
"Kelly has always been a strong attacker," Snider said. "She also has developed into a very good all-court player during her time here. She will be our primary passer, and she is a skilled defender."
Hamm, a 5-10 outside hitter and a junior in terms of athletic eligibility, also contributes in more ways than one. She collected 4.11 digs per game last fall, the third-best average in the NWC, and added 2.89 kills per game at the offensive end.
"Val was one of our top defenders last year, and she played a major role as a primary attacker," Snider said. "She is a very good all-around player with solid passing, defending and attacking skills."
Both Williams and Hamm earned honorable mention all-NWC recognition last season.
Brown, a 5-9 outside hitter, is another reason why Whitman was the NWC's top defensive team a year ago, averaging 19.42 digs per game. Brown gave the Missionaries 3.53 digs per game, the seventh-best individual mark in the conference.
"Jeni has made her Whitman career by playing awe-inspiring defense," Snider said. "She has been an inspirational player and a natural leader for us. We expect her to continue her outstanding defense and to see more time as an outside hitter."
Roth, a 6-1 middle blocker, was among the conference leaders in both blocks and hitting percentage last fall as a sophomore starter. She was No. 2 in the NWC in hitting percentage at .278, trailing only teammate Barby Ream, and she was No. 6 in blocks with an average of one per game.
"Allison is a solid middle blocker and one of our more consistent players," Snider said. "She blocks well and is also turning into a potent attacker."
Novotny, a 5-7 setter, is ready to take the reins of the offense after serving as an understudy the past two seasons to the now graduated Heather Cushing. Novotny played in 26 games last fall, averaging a healthy 9.19 assists. By contrast, Cushing was No. 3 in the conference with an average of 9.47 assists in 78 games (Cushing graduated in just three years at Whitman, earning honorable mention recognition in two of her three volleyball seasons).
The offense will rest in good hands with Novotny, Snider said. "Claire has a quiet confidence on the court, a quality that her teammates respect and appreciate. She works hard and distributes the ball with good choices and good location. She's going to be a great court leader for us this season."
While Kanaga, a 6-0 middle blocker, saw limited playing time as a freshman last season, "she was impressive each time she stepped on the floor," Snider said. "Megan began to blossom as a player during our spring ball. I really believe she is going to be a force. She is a solid blocker and a stronger attacker. Those assets fit well on the right side, where she will probably start for us this fall."
Jill Huber, one of Snider's top recruits, is a 5-11 middle blocker who excelled in recent years at Enumclaw (Wash.) High School and for the Puget Sound Volleyball Club. A three-year varsity starter at Enunclaw, Huber was team captain and MVP as a senior when she led the South Puget Sound League in both blocking percentage and kills, earning first-team all-league honors in the process.
Huber also was a regular starter for her Puget Sound club team, which is rated among the top ten Junior programs in the nation. "Jill is already playing at a very high level," Snider said. "She will step right in and fill the hole left by Barby Ream. We expect Jill to have a great career at Whitman. I look forward to her contributions both as a player and leader."
Replacing Ream in the Missionary attack, however, will be a challenge. A first-team all-NWC player last fall, Ream led the conference with a .403 hitting percentage, and was among the NWC leaders in both kills (2.75 pg) and digs (3.22 pg). A versatile 6-foot middle blocker, she also was one of 12 players named to the NCAA Div. III All-West Region Team.
Fortunately for Huber and the rest of this year's Missionaries, Ream will bring her experience and talent back to the court this fall as an assistant coach.
Elly Smith, Snider's other top recruit, is a 5-3 setter and defensive specialist from Spokane's East Valley High School. A three-year varsity starter, Smith earned first-team honors as both a senior and junior. She also was captain and recipient of her team's Most Inspirational Player awards in each of those seasons.
"Elly's U.S.A. club team, the Spokane Splash, is also very strong," Snider said. "She has been that team's primary defensive specialist."
Kirstein is another freshman who has made a strong first impression. "Denise has great athleticism," Snider said. "She will likely make an immediate impact on the floor. She is a powerful jumper and a strong attacker."
Nelson, a freshman, and Thorsen, a junior playing her first season of college volleyball, are "very good ball-control players," Snider said. "As defensive specialists and all-court players, they round out our roster very well, making our team as deep as any Whitman team in recent years."
Whitman travels to Spokane to open its fall season in the Whitworth Invitational on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 1-2. The Missionaries play their home opener on Tuesday, Sept. 5, against a non-conference opponent, Cascade College of Portland, Ore.
Whitman heads east to play in the Gustavus Adolphus College Invitational in Saint Peter, Minn., on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 8-9. The Missionaries then start conference play when they host Pacific and Lewis & Clark on Friday and Saturday, Sept. 15-16.