By Arlie Rahn
Arizona Daily Wildcat
The Arizona volleyball team is gearing up for its second straight NCAA tournament appearance.
Tonight at 7 in McKale Center, the Wildcats will face Loyola Marymount, a very tough first-round draw. Last year, Arizona drew a Lamar team that it quickly disposed of before moving on to Arizona State in the second round. But the Arizona coaching staff sees this Lion team as a formidable opponent.
"Loyola Marymount is a very good team," UA coach Dave Rubio said. "They are better than the Lamar team we faced last year."
This matchup is a typical example of the strength of the West Region. With 11 of the 12 teams having a place in the top 25 throughout the season, this region is by far the strongest.
"When you play in the West Region, you know that you have your work cut out for you," LMU coach Steve Stratos said.
Loyola Marymount is a team that is, in the words of Stratos, "well-balanced." Even though the Lions are a young team ─ they start one junior, four sophomores and a freshman ─ they still have a great amount of chemistry in their lineup. The Lions have four players with over 200 kills and five with over 20 aces.
"With a team like ours, if one girl has an off night, we're not going to suffer as much as some other teams," Stratos said.
But even with their balanced attack, the Lions still have players they rely on when push comes to shove. Junior captain Mardell Wrensch and freshman setter Tracy Holman have shown leadership throughout the regular season. Wrensch is leading the team in hitting with an impressive .353 percentage, and her 99 blocks are also a team high. Holman has 1,353 assists ─ 13.1 per game ─and is second on the team in digs with 247.
The Wildcats have been playing their best volleyball all season in during the last seven games. They have six wins, and their one loss came against No. 2 Stanford. A major reason for Arizona's newfound success has been the team's chemistry in the last few games. Junior setter Laura Bartsch has been a great factor in this mixture. In her last seven games, she has recorded nearly 300 assists and has 19 blocks. But more importantly than her statistics has been her leadership on the floor. Another vital player has been senior Rita Johnson, who was recently named to the All-Pacific 10 Conference team. Her 121 blocks and .247 hitting percentage are both team highs, and her 20 aces are tied for tops.
Two players who have struck fear in the hearts of many opposing coaches are the Wildcats' dynamic duo of outside hitters, Barb Bell and Melissa Ferris. These two have combined for 695 kills, which works out to more than eight kills a game. But these two are more than just net players, they have also have the ability to play the back row. Bell and Ferris have 457 digs and 39 service aces between them.
The Wildcats realize the experience the veterans have of playing in the tournament last season is going to be vital against the young LMU team.
"Laura, Barb, Melissa, Rita and Heidi (Bomberger) were instrumental in last year's tournament," Rubio said. "Their experience will be a great asset in this year's tournament."
Rubio also feels that facing a challenging first-round opponent might benefit them in later rounds.
"I think that if we go out and beat LMU, it would give us much more momentum than beating a Lamar," Rubio said.
Ticket prices for tonight's game are as follows: $5 for general admission, $3 for students and senior citizens, and $2 for children 12 and under.
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