It’s hard to tell where the 2014 UC Davis women’s volleyball program is headed.
In just 2 1/2 weeks of serious workouts, it would be tough for any first-year-on-campus coach to introduce a new style of play to a team that has four freshmen and will be missing the sterling play of its leading killmaker and top assist provider.
But former UCLA and Illini assistant Dan Conners is happy with his Aggies’ progress and thinks the transition for both him and his players is going reasonably well.
“It’s brand-new for everybody,” says Conners, the former two-time collegiate national champion while playing at UCLA. “It’s exciting, but it’s also challenging. The most challenging thing is when we’re on the court (and training) … it’s changing habits. And the seniors are harder than freshmen because they’ve been doing different things (longer).”
But Conners thinks his women have what it takes to make a dent in Big West Conference play. Just give everybody time to get adjusted.
Later this week UCD heads to Houston for the Rice Invitational. In that Friday game (4:30 p.m.), the Aggies get the host Owls. Saturday, Fresno State and Louisiana Lafayette are the foes.
How will Davis perform?
Conners says he’s not sure what to expect from anybody in that tournament — including his Aggies.
“Nobody has played anybody yet,” the coach points out, adding: “Another thing I have trouble with is having expectations for a first tournament. That can get you in trouble if you have too many expectations — good or bad. I expect the team to compete hard, to work hard and to try and get better. See where we are …”
Gone from last season’s 14-15 squad are Put-away Queen Devon Damelio (367 kills) and the program’s all-time leading setter, Jenny Woolway (1,201 assists in 2013 alone).
Defensive specialist Mary Schroeder and top ace-maker Lindsay Dowd also graduated.
Conners had an interesting take on how his team will fill those spots:
“As far as replacing them? I’m not sure what this team was with those players. As far as players stepping up in leadership roles? I think we have some seniors who are pretty vocal.
“I like the idea of everyone having some leadership role … or having some (important) role on the team, so they all have a voice — all feel their voices are heard.
“We see players with some potential, but as far as anybody separating themselves from the group? Not at this point.”
The 36-year-old believes that is not a bad thing — “a team full of contributors.”
Conners was pressed further about who might play where and talked about redshirt freshman Aima Eichie (Canyon Rock High of Colorado):
“She’s looking like, as she gets comfortable, she’ll be able to put up some good numbers,” says Conners of Eichie’s prowess at the net. “She could be a pretty big offensive and blocking threat.”
Then there is Katie Quinn (Drake High) and outside hitter Allie Wegener (St. Francis), both seniors …
“Katie is outstanding on being able to do slides (advancing from behind a setter to attempt a kill) and Ali is right there, contributing. She has a nice, live arm and can pass as well, which is great,” says their coach. “(Wegener), for sure, is a big hitter.”
Conners likes the height veteran Kaylin Squyres (a junior from Whitney High) gets and thinks her “left-side attack ball” can be devastating for opponents.
Glendora High product Valeria Brain is another Aggie whose received some preseason praise:
“She has a lot of different shots and she can bring the heat. When she’s hitting it, she can hit it hard,” says Conners of his 6-foot-1 middle blocker.
Then there’s the battle for setter — or quarterback, if you will.
Redshirt freshmen Erika Conners (no relation to the coach) is a San Diego native who is being challenged by Sophia Mar, a transfer from Connecticut who is from Oakland.
“They are playing well,” the new Aggie mentor explains. “Both will get opportunities to play (during the preconference schedule).”
Even though he had nothing to do with it, Conners likes his team’s schedule, which sees the Aggies travel to No. 4 Washington (Sept. 12) and host No. 17 Hawaii on Sept. 26, opening Big Sky play.
About the trip to Washington?
“That will be a challenge, because they’re a tough team — anywhere. And they are a tough, tough team up there,” says Conners.
“I’m looking forward to that one. They’re always a strong, strong team. They’ll bring some of their fans — they have fans all over the place, so they’ll get Hawaii fans in here — and we’ll be able to pack the place with Davis fans.”
Just don’t expect too much too soon.
“At this point, we are still a work in progress,” the coach believes. “The exciting thing for me is that we have the pieces that can get us there.”
And where is “there?”
“I’d like us to be a team that is relentless defensively. From a serving standpoint, we’re not giving anybody any space to breathe. From a defensive standpoint, you have to do something pretty special to get a point on us.
“I think those two things are something I’d like to try to hang out hat on this year. We’re getting to that. We’re getting a lot better in those two areas,” concludes Conners.