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LMU Seeks to Reach Lofty Expectations

Sept. 14, 2007

Consistency is often the key to success in sports.

The Loyola Marymount women's volleyball team was reminded of this in 2006.

Coming off their third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, the Lions began the season with 12 victories in their first 15 matches.

Then LMU hit West Coast Conference play, and the wheels came off, as the team skidded to a 5-9 mark to finish 19-12 overall and miss a fourth straight trip to the postseason.

Senior opposite hitter Heather Hughes noted that one of the Lions' top goals for this season is to avoid "peaks and valleys, just stay consistent and win."

LMU has shown some of that consistency so far this season, going 6-4 against "a very tough schedule," said Coach Steve Stratos.

"We have expectations of battling for the WCC championship," Stratos said. "We have expectations of playing in the NCAA Tournament and doing well. The road to get there is filled with a lot of very good volleyball teams."

To accomplish those goals, Stratos quoted former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

"(He) always said, `You have to trust the person that's playing next to you,"' Stratos said. "We have three freshmen playing right now. There needs to be a development of continuity with the girls that are returning. That takes a little while. They have to trust their abilities, there needs to be that communication on the court. Every time they play I think that improves."

Hughes agreed.

"Our team is getting a lot better with communication," said the three-time All-WCC selection. "We've been working it out. After our first tournament, we know where our strengths are and what we have to work on. Basically, we have a lot of improvement to do, and we know how to fix it. We're on the right track. As long as we keep working on it, we'll be fine."

Hughes has once again become the focal point of the LMU attack. She leads the Lions with 214 kills, while adding 133 digs, 11 aces and 23 blocks.

Stratos, though, doesn't want LMU to seem like a one-player team.

"People key on Heather," he said. "We have to find ways to get her freed up so she can attack successfully. The key to our success is balance, so we don't depend on Heather too much."

Part of that balance comes from outside hitters Emily Day (West Torrance High), a junior, and Christianna Reneau, a senior. Day has racked up 129 kills, 118 digs, 20 blocks and a team-high 20 aces so far. Reneau has 86 kills and 117 digs.

"More of an impact, that's what we expect from her," Stratos said of Day. "She and Christy Reneau, our two outside hitters, are as capable as a combo to be as good as anyone in the conference. We need them to take a lot of the load away from Heather."

To help prepare for this season, Day and Hughes spent a lot of time playing together on the beach over the summer. They entered the AVP Tour's Long Beach Open in July, where the duo surprised everyone by becoming the lowest-seeded qualifying team to ever reach the main draw. Their reward was a showdown with the top-ranked team in the world, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.

"Heather and I got a lot of experience," Day said. "It was really neat to play the best team in the world on the beach. Taking that and bringing that to LMU, we know we've played the best out there. We know we can compete with anyone."

Hughes called the experience "a dream come true," and although the LMU duo lost, she agreed with Day that they took a lot from the experience that they can use to help the Lions this season.

"It really helped us get to know one another more," Hughes said. "It's just the two of us out there. We know our strengths and weaknesses. We know how each other plays a lot better. We're more comfortable together. When we came back indoors it helped us work together more. It helped us become a lot closer."

Hughes and Day have done their best to get closer with their teammates, including freshman setter Renee Horton, who has filled in as a starter while Ashley Dutro has been recovering from an injury.

"She has a good head for the game," Stratos said of Horton. "Her mother played collegiate volleyball, so in growing up I think that really helped Renee to gain a greater understanding for the game.

"So although in years and experience at the Division I level she's lacking, where she has an advantage over some people is that she has a volleyball mind. She understands who's hot, who's not, where to attack defenses, what kind of plays to run that will be successful. The more comfortable she becomes with our hitters, the more success she'll have on the court."

Horton said she hasn't let the pressure of starting affect her so far this season.

"I've played in a lot of big matches," said Horton, who already has 459 assists, 50 kills and 80 digs. "I've been playing since fourth grade. I'm kind of used to the pressure. It's just a different level. Breathe and just play volleyball, as Coach Stratos likes to say."

The Lions will travel to Stockton to face Pacific on Thursday and Oregon State on Friday, followed by a match at Cal State Fullerton on Tuesday. WCC play will begin with a trip to Pepperdine on Sept. 29.

"Our conference is really tough," Day said. "Every team we play ... nothing is a walk in the park. Every time you get on the court you have to play well or you can get beat."

Day said last season proved the Lions will have to kick it up a notch if they hope to contend for the title.

"We didn't step up when conference play came," Day said. "We needed to bring our level of play to a higher level. We didn't do that."