WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- With the bulk of his roster returning, Whitman College women's volleyball coach Dean Snider has reason for optimism as he prepares for his seventh season at the Missionary helm.
"We return the strength of our roster, and we have added some new players who should help us get better," Snider says.
"We played well last fall, but most of our starters were first- and second-year players, particularly after we lost Megan Kanaga to injury. This year, those players have more experience under their belts. I expect a better showing in 2002."
The Missionaries stumbled out of the gate a year ago, losing their first five matches -- two in five games and two in four games. Once Northwest Conference play began, Whitman dropped six of its first eight matches. On their second swing through the conference, however, the maturing Missionaries won four of eight decisions.
"We had trouble winning close matches early in the season, but we showed great improvement throughout the fall and had a better showing in the second half," Snider says.
Despite its late-season surge, Whitman finished at 10-17 overall, its first losing record in five years. The Missionaries were 6-10 in NWC play, good enough for sixth place but down a notch from their placing the previous season.
Kanaga (Maple Valley, Wash. / Tahoma HS), a 6-foot-1 middle blocker, is Whitman's only senior this fall. After spraining an ankle on the first weekend of conference play last year, Kanaga later returned just long enough to break a hand in warm-ups.
"Megan is a very strong attacker," Snider says. "If we can keep her healthy, she will have a significant impact on our offense."
Early last season, Kanaga slammed 19 kills while hitting .308 in a four-game victory over McMurry University (Abilene, Texas). She also had three blocks.
"As a co-captain this year, Megan will also play a key leadership role for us," Snider says. "Megan leads by example in terms of her preparation and effort."
Whitman's other captain is Jill Huber, a 5-foot-11 middle blocker who earned Second Team All-NWC honors last fall for a second straight season. Huber (Enumclaw, Wash. / Enumclaw HS)ranked among the league leaders in several statistical categories, finishing fourth in both kills (3.86 per game) and service aces (.47 per game), fifth in blocks (.87 per game) and sixth in hitting percentage (.272).
"Jill is our best player -- very dynamic and a tremendous leader," Snider says. "She plays with great intensity and controlled emotion. Watching her play is very enjoyable."
Huber was the dominant player in a number of matches last year. In five games against Michigan's Kalamazoo College, Huber hit .395 while collecting 23 kills, 11 digs, eight blocks and four aces. She sparked a NWC victory over George Fox with 20 kills, 21 digs, six aces and four blocks.
Huber is one of six juniors on the Missionary roster. The others include a trio of returnees: Denise Kirstein, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter; Liz Nelson, a 5-foot-7 outside hitter and defensive specialist; and Elly Smith, a 5-foot-3 setter and defensive specialist.
Rounding out Whitman's junior class are community college transfers Mandee Romero, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter, and Erin Wade, a 5-foot-3 setter.
Kirstein (Spokane, Wash. / Ferris HS), who also plays varsity basketball for the Missionaries, led Whitman in digs last year, averaging 4.34 per game, and was second in kills with 3.15 per game. Her dig percentage was the third-best mark in the conference.
Kirstein collected 25 digs against Wisconsin Lutheran last fall, which was the highest total posted by any NWC player in a three-game match. She delivered eight service aces in a four-game match against Western Baptist.
"Denise also was our most consistent passer last season," Snider says. "Her all-court game is essential for our team success. I expect that her kill percentage will increase this year as well, giving us a more consistent attack."
Nelson (Seattle, Wash. / Holy Names Academy) accumulated 177 digs last year, averaging 2.49 digs per game, the fourth-best mark on the team. She had 21 digs in Whitman's five-game victory over George Fox. Nelson tied Kristein for the third most service aces on the season with 27.
"Liz is an excellent server and passer," Snider says. "She contributes greatly to our ball control. She's also becoming a strong attacker."
Smith (Spokane, Wash. / East Valley HS), characterized by Snider as "our spark plug," played a back-up role last fall to setter Claire Novotny, a senior who finished fourth in the NWC in assists with 10.76 per game. Playing in 66 games, mostly as a defensive specialist, Smith averaged 2.24 digs.
"Nobody works harder than Elly," Snider says. "Her work ethic inspires her teammates. She's made significant contributions to our program in her first two seasons, and we expect that to continue."
Wadethe other setter on Whitman's roster, is listed as a junior academically but has three years of athletic eligibility remaining. A graduate of Yakima's Davis High School, Wade played one season at Yakima Valley Community College.
"I'm looking forward to working with Erin," Snider says. "She's a good athlete."
Romero, Whitman's other transfer, logged two seasons at Walla Walla Community College after playing her prep volleyball at Grandview High School in the lower Yakima Valley. She also plans to play basketball at Whitman.
"Mandee is an excellent athlete who could play more than one role in our program," Snider says.
The Missionary roster also includes four sophomores, three of whom played a year ago.
Megan Bessette (Anchorage, Alaska / Service HS), a 5-foot-10 middle blocker, averaged 3.27 digs and 1.89 kills in 56 games in her first collegiate season. She was No. 2 on the squad in digs per game and No. 3 in kills.
"Megan is a great ball control player who competes very hard," Snider says. "She will play a more significant role this season."
Lyndsay Buckingham (Issaquah, Wash. / Skyline HS), a 5-foot-8 outside hitter, also showed plenty of potential in her first season. In 46 games, she averaged 2.41 digs and 1.65 kills.
"Lyndsay is an explosive player who had great moments last year," Snider says. "Her ball control has also improved greatly. Expect good things from Lyndsay."
Laura Williams (Eugene, Ore. / Churchill HS), a 5-foot-11 middle blocker, played in just eight games last fall in her first season.
"Laura didn't see much playing time last year, but she's a very good blocker who I think is ready to make a solid contribution," Snider says. "Her attacking skills have also been developing nicely. We're going to have a good one-two punch from the middle again this year."
Megan Murray (Coronado, Calif. / Francis Parker HS-San Diego), a 6-foot middle blocker, is the sophomore embarking on her first collegiate season. "Megan gives us more depth in the middle, which is great to have," Snider says.
Karna Williams, a 5-foot-9 outside hitter who played at Alaska's Petersburg High School, is the only first-year player on this year's roster.
"Karna is a very strong athlete," Snider says. "She was an all-region player in Alaska. She's someone who should fit nicely into our program."
Whitman opens it season on Tuesday, Sept. 3, at home against Eastern Oregon University. The Missionaries hit the road Sept. 6-7 to play four of their NCAA DIII sister schools in California in a tournament hosted by Whittier College.
Whitman hosts a five-team tournament Sept. 12-13. One of those tournament matches includes Whitman's NWC opener against Whitworth.
Whitworth, a defending NWC co-champion, returns two of the three players who earned First Team All-Conference honors last season. In a recent poll of NWC coaches, the Pirates were picked to win this season's title outright.
"I expect Whitworth and Puget Sound to slug it out again this year for the top spot," Snider says.
The poll of coaches picked Whitman to place sixth. "I hope we can improve on that prediction," Snider says. "I would like to see us reach the top third."