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August 30, 2011

Volleyball Should Be in Thick of Conference Race

The Pacific Lutheran University volleyball team narrowly missed out on a share of a fifth consecutive Northwest Conference title in 2010, and a season later the Lutes will look to get back into the winning form that earned them four conference titles from 2006 to 2009.

That task will be more than elementary as the Lutes have lost two major pieces that have contributed to the program's winning formula. Setter Sarah Beaver and outside Beth Hanna, who have achieved a thorough list of AVCA All-America, all-region, and all-conference honors, have graduated from the program after illustrious careers. In 2007, Hanna was named Division III National Freshman of the Year in addition to first team All-American. She added a pair of third team All-America honors the following two seasons, and twice was the conference player of the year. Beaver was an honorable mention All-America during her junior season.

Despite those big losses, head coach Kevin Aoki is confident that his team will again compete for Northwest Conference championship honors. "In my 16 years as head coach at PLU, this is by far the deepest team we have ever had," he said. "All 18 girls can really play and can bring something to the program this year."

This season, a strong core of experienced players returns for the Lutes. The squad will be led by senior tri-captains Kelsie Moore, middle blocker Erin Bremond and right side player Missy DeWalt.

Moore, an outside hitter, earned All-Northwest Conference first team recognition for her play last season. In 2010, Moore ranked seventh in total kills among NWC foes and her 0.4 service aces per set ranked her second in the conference. She led the Lutes with 279 total kills and she was second with an average of 3.3 digs per set.

Bremond, a diminutive 5-7 for a middle blocker, uses her tremendous athleticism to cover lots of the court and to play above the net. She led the team in blocks last season and her 0.93 blocks per set ranked her fourth in the NWC. In addition, she averaged 2.16 kills while hitting .224.

DeWalt had a solid junior year after moving outside from the middle blocker position she held for two seasons. She averaged 1.54 kills per set while hitting at a .225 percentage.

Other seniors include right side player Hannah Harrison and outside hitter Rose Mattson, whom Aoki calls "one of the team's best passers and defenders."

In the junior class, libero Blair Bjorkman, who averaged 5.3 digs per set a year ago, will again hold down the back line. Outside hitter Kelsey Pacolt hits the ball as hard as anyone on the team and is vying for playing time across the front row.

The sophomore class "has a little bit of everything," according to Aoki. Outside hitters Haley Urdahl and Allison Wood both have solid all-around games, while setter Anna Buck will be in the mix at that position in addition to seeking time as a back row defender. The Lutes have a pair of excellent sophomore middle blockers in Bethany Huston and Becca Holtgeerts. Huston, in particular, had some very strong matches last year and figures to be an additional tool in the PLU offensive arsenal.

"The freshman class is one of our strongest ever," Aoki said. Setter Samantha North is a candidate to lead the PLU offense after playing her prep volleyball for Sue Westering at Gig Harbor High School. Westering is the sister of PLU football head coach Scott Westering. According to Aoki, defensive specialist Amber Aguiar "will provide excellent digging skills along with a tough serve."

Joining North and Aguiar in this outstanding class are outside hitters Chelsea Nelson and Aubrey Larion, and middle blockers Amy Wooten and Lauren McClung, and that group will provide excellent depth to a strong PLU squad.

Northwest Conference coaches have picked PLU to finish third in the standings behind defending champion Whitworth and Puget Sound, which PLU tied for second in 2010. "If the Lutes play together and improve throughout the season, we could surprise a few people," Aoki said.

Pacific Lutheran opens its 2011 season with an appearance at the Puget Sound Volleyball Tournament hosted by the University of Puget Sound. The Lutes will face a couple of non-conference foes – Wisconsin-Stout and UC Santa Cruz – in addition to going head-to-head with Whitworth and the hosts. That should give the Lutes an early indication of where they stand in relationship to the top teams in the conference.

- PLU -