Whitman Volleyball Preview
Wednesday, Aug 29, 2012
Matt Helm likes his volleyball fast and loose.
And Whitman College's first-year head coach will be looking for those exact traits this season as he takes his first steps in rebuilding a Missionaries' volleyball program that has fallen on hard times in recent years.
"We give our athletes a lot of freedom to make plays," said Helm, who comes to Whitman following a successful eight-year coaching run at Molokai High School in Hawaii. "We are not quite as structured as some programs. We want to take advantage of individual athletic ability, and we want to put our athletes in the best possible situation to be successful."
He also expects them to work hard and have fun doing it.
"You come into our gym, you are going to hear a lot of laughter," Helm said. "You are going to see a lot of sweat and hear a lot of noise, but I think our players are enjoying it.
"It's why all of these girls chose to play volleyball from day one when they were little girls, and it's what we are trying to tap into - the fun of playing volleyball. And hard work is fun."
Helm inherits a team of four seniors, four juniors and three sophomores who experienced just four victories last season and found themselves on the losing end of 18 matches. The Missionaries finished 3-13 in the Northwest Conference.
The Whits haven't had a winning season since 2006, Dean Snider's 11th and final season as head coach. That Whitman team logged a 10-6 NWC mark and was 14-10 on the season.
Helm recognizes that it won't be easy to move the program back to its late 1990s level when the team strung together four consecutive winning seasons, topped by a 17-10 record in 2000. And he knows it won't happen overnight.
"Recruiting is going to be critical," he said. "And getting the word out about Whitman College is going to be important. I don't think people know about Whitman. It is amazing how great this campus and college is - one of the top liberal arts colleges in the nation."
But Whitman's new coach is determined that the Missionaries will be competitive beginning this fall.
"Changing the culture is very important," he said. "It's something I had to do in my high school program in Hawaii.
"Basically it's being competitive in the gym every day. You have to create an atmosphere where you compete and want to win, against your teammates and against yourself. We are competing, but we are also enjoying it and that's the key."
Helm sees plenty of potential in his returning players, starting with junior outside hitter Jillian Davis, who was a second-team all-NWC selection as a sophomore. The 5-foot-9 Davis, who is from Coronado High School in El Paso, Texas, led the Missionaries last season with 197 kills and 617 total attacks.
"She is probably our best all-around athlete and has a great volleyball IQ," Helm said of his junior standout. "She has excellent snap on the outside."
But Helm doesn't want to saddle Davis with too much pressure to perform on offense.
"We are hoping to spread out the offense a bit," he said. "She has had a lot of weight on her shoulders, and we would like to distribute the ball and keep defenses guessing."
That said, Davis will remain the focal point of the Whitman attack.
"She is definitely the person we will look to. And everyone knows that, so there's nothing to hide. And she is more than capable."
The four seniors on this year's roster are Rachel Shober (5-9, Archbishop Murphy High, Everett, Wash.), Courtney Brewer (5-11, South Anchorage High, Anchorage, Alaska), Olivia Nielson (5-10, A.J. Diamond High, Anchorage, Alaska) and Carrie Cecil (6-0, Dana High, Dedham, Mass.). Shober is listed on the roster as an opposite, or rightside hitter, Brewer and Nielson are middle blockers and Cecil an outside hitter.
"Shober is a great leader, someone who gets it and knows how to motivate in practice and keeps everyone else on task," Helm said. "Right now we are looking at her as a starter, but we have a competitive gym and everyone is pushing everyone else."
Brewer and Nielson both figure to be in the starting rotation, Helm said.
"Brewer understands the game, knows situations, knows the court," he said. "She's that fourth coach on the court who can go ahead and run audibles out of the middle, and we are looking for great things from her.
"I am really excited about Olivia," Helm said of Nielson. "She has the quickest feet on the team and great blocking instincts. We are looking for that fiery tiger part of her to come out."
As for Cecil, Helm is most impressed with her strong work ethic.
"This girl works extremely hard," the coach said. "She gets it, she understands that hard work pays off. The only thing we are dealing with is that she is coming off ACL surgery and is limited in practice. But her work ethic is priceless and she sets the standard for putting in the work."
In addition to Davis, the juniors on the roster are Rachel Cline (5-9, Holy Names Academy, Seattle), Taylor Aschenbrenner (5-7, Black Hills High, Olympia, Wash.) and Becca Gotz (5-8, Archbishop High, Everett, Wash.). Cline and Aschenbrenner are dueling for the setter position they shared last season and Gotz is a defensive specialist or libero.
"They are both excellent setters with great ball control," Helm said of Cline and Aschenbrenner. "They are learning a new system and taking it with an open mind, buying into the system.
"Right now we see Rachel as the primary, setter but Taylor is battling every day. From what I understand, there was no real set role for either of them last year. They kind of split duties, and we want to be more clear this year as far as their roles are concerned.
"The one down side is that they are both juniors and very, very close as far as ability."
Gotz is another instinctively sound volleyball player who is always at the right place at the right time, Helm said. But she's been battling a knee issue that could delay her season.
"The trainers are working hard on all of our injuries," Helm said. "Becca is going at 60-to-70 percent in our practices right now, but hopefully she will be at 100 percent soon. She is one of those vocal leaders you need in the back row and I'm expecting big things from her this season."
Sophomore Jazmin Moledine (5-11, Menlo High, Woodside, Calif.) has made strong inroads to claim the second outside hitter position.
"She jumps very well, she's athletic and she's physical," Helm said. "She hits a very high ball and she's explosive with great potential. She's going to be our starter opposite Jillian and I am very excited for her career here at Whitman."
The other two sophs are Megan Bafus (5-11, Inglemoor High, Kenmore, Wash.) and Franny Gardner (5-10, Santa Cruz, Calif.). Both saw limited playing time as freshmen.
"Megan could be a big contributor as an opposite," Helm said. "She has a live arm, swings the ball well and turns well from the right side. She's working on her foot speed but could be a huge block on the right side for us.
"Franny is one of those workhorses that is willing to do whatever it takes to help the team. She could play a little bit of defensive specialist, opposite or outside, we're even looking for her to possibly get in the front row. She's working hard on her overall game and is willing to do whatever it takes."
The three freshmen who round out the roster are Abby Seethoff (5-10, Newport High, Bellevue, Wash.), Hannah Linsenmayer (5-8, Archbishop High, Everett, Wash.) and Nicole Peterson (Bear Creek High, Redmond, Wash.).
Seethoff arrived on campus as a small middle but will probably be switched to outside hitter or opposite, Helm said. "She has very quick feet and is coachable, eager to learn."
With Gotz questionable for early matches, Linsemayer could be called upon for early duty as a true freshman.
"She has the starting role right now," Helm said of Linsemayer. "She has very good instincts, and we have lacked ball control in the past. She brings that ball-control tempo to run our quick offense. She has been a big plus so far.
"And when Becca Gotz gets healthy, they will battle for it."
Peterson is a defensive specialist who is working hard to learn Helm's system.
"She needs reps to understand the game," the coach said. "But her athleticism will carry her. I think she will work out fine once she learns the game a little more."
The Northwest Conference coaches poll has picked the Missionaries to finish last. Helm, meanwhile, talks to his players in terms of a league championship.
"We play to win, same as all of these other schools," Helm said. "Every team is trying to win a championship. That is something we understand and it is one of our goals.
"We're not playing for second or fourth or fifth place. People might look at me like I am crazy, but, honestly, why else would we play?"