Youth biggest question of volleyball team

By Ron P. Parsons

Arizona Daily Wildcat

It was media day yesterday for the Arizona women's volleyball team, and according to coaches and players there is both good news and bad news concerning the Wildcats.

The good news is that team unity, that elusive quality which makes bad teams better and good teams great, is at an all-time high.

When asked what the team's strong point would be this year, head coach David Rubio answered, "Without question, the chemistry of the team."

The bad news is that the team, however unified, lacks the experience of past Arizona squads, and experience goes a long way when the NCAA tournament rolls around. The Tucson-based trio of Barbara Bell, Heidi Bomberger, and Laura Bartsch will return, but Arizona lost Melissa Ferris and Charita Johnson to graduation, Tamika Dennis is redshirting and several positions are unsettled.

"We're unsure just how good we're going to be this year," Rubio said. "With a little bit of seasoning, I think the players and the team will evolve into a top-16 team again. Whether or not we're going to be there from the very first weekend is hard to say."

And the very first weekend starts Sept. 1, when Arizona hosts the Wildcat Classic at McKale Center. UC-Santa Barbara, Texas Tech and Missouri will play in the tournament.

The Wildcat Classic is the first of three tournaments Arizona will compete in before the start of the Pacific 10 Conference season. The conference opener is Sept. 13, a home match against Arizona State.

Rubio said the early-season tournaments are an important step in preparing his team for the rigors of conference play.

The competitions "are critical for us," Rubio said. "The opportunity to play quite a few matches prior to the Pac-10 season is going to give our team an oppurtunity to solidify. We need to get some game time for the young kids."

One player who will surely see more action this season is setter Michaela Ebben, a 5-foot-10-inch sophomore from Forestville, Calif. Ebben is challenging incumbent Laura Bartsch (third on the UA's career assist list) for the starting position, and Rubio said Ebbens is "right there in the hunt for starting setter."

Ebbens, who said she is excited to play after redshirting most of last year, expressed gratitude about having a mentor and competitor like Bartsch to push her.

"Day in and day out we compete," Ebbens said. "She really challenges me, and that's a good thing. This team's going to get by on perspiration and chemistry."

And Bartsch, for her part, agreed that battling for the starting spot has made both players better.

"It's a friendly competition," Bartsch said. "Any kind of competition is going to help you step up your play."

Bartsch said the team's lack of experience won't hurt its chances of returning to the Sweet Sixteen, where the Wildcats have reached each of the past two seasons.

"Our team cohesiveness and heart will definitely carry us farther than just experience," she said.

The biggest question mark for the team, according to Rubio, is the middle blocker position, where graduation and redshirting has depleted the ranks.

Currently, three players are vying for the position: junior Laura Reckmeyer, a transfer from Notre Dame who Rubio called the "most polished" of the three; sophomore Stephanie Venne (Rubio: "Right on Reckmeyer's heels"); and freshman Keisha Johnson (Rubio: She "has the potential to blossom into a phenomenal player.").

Outside hitter Barbara Bell, who has had several knee surgeries, returns as the left outside hitter. A junior, Bell is ninth on the UA career kill chart.

Rubio said despite Arizona's lack of experience, he expects the Wildcats to contend when the championship tournament rolls around.

"The big goal for us is making the NCAAs," Rubio said. "I think by the time the season finishes, we'll definitely be a top-16 team again.

"But it's going to be a dog fight."

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