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West Coast Countdown: Young Lions Eager to Return to Top of WCC

Aug. 20, 2009

Following a 2008 campaign in which Loyola Marymount suffered its first sub-.500 year under 20th-year head coach Steve Stratos, and a year that the Lions bid adieu to two-time first team All-WCC honoree Emily Day, a young LMU squad will look to return to its winning ways and the top of the competitive WCC.

2008 Review
The Lions began the 2008 season at 9-3, highlighted by a five-match winning streak from September 12 to September 19. Over that span, LMU captured the 2008 Four Points Sheraton LAX/LMU Volleyball Classic Championship by finishing undefeated against Pittsburgh, San Jose State and UC Irvine. Unfortunately for the Lions, they would go on to drop 10 of their last 11 matches en route to finishing the season with a 13-17 overall record, and a 3-11 mark in the West Coast Conference. Those records placed the team sixth overall in the competitive WCC.

Despite the uncharacteristic record for LMU last year, the Lions did manage to earn a number of individual accolades throughout the season. Emily Day highlighted the group by earning WCC Player of the Week honors on September 29. She went on to be voted All-Tournament at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic and the Four Points Sheraton Classic, earning Tournament MVP honors at the conclusion of the latter. The postseason continued to bring honors to Day's doorstep, where she earned a spot on the WCC Fall All-Academic team and the All-Conference first team. CoSIDA also recognized the math major on the academic side, voting her to the Academic All-District team. Day's stellar senior campaign was capped by a selection to Collegiate Volleyball Update's Stellar Spikers honorable mention squad.

Becky Stehling joined Day in the postseason accolades department, receiving honorable mention All-WCC honors and a spot on the WCC Fall All-Academic squad. During the season, Stehling garnered an All-Tournament selection at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic.

Ariana Covington was the only other Lion lauded after the season, earning a spot on the WCC All-Freshman team. That selection marked the second consecutive year, and third in the last four, that the Lions had at least one player named to the All-Freshman team. In addition, Erin Downey, Diana Hiromoto and Renee Horton were each named to the Four Points Sheraton All-Tournament team, while Megan Nash garnered All-Tournament recognition at the MCM Elegante Lobo Classic.Head Coach Steve StratosSteve Stratos completed his 19th season at the helm of the program with his first losing campaign during his tenure. In his time at LMU, Stratos has led the Lions to nine 20-win seasons and 11 postseason appearances. He has posted a career record of 372-195, the most victories in LMU volleyball history and second-most among current WCC coaches. His .656 winning percentage places him in the top-50 (47th) among active Division I coaches. His 372 victories place him 48th among the same group of coaches. In conference play, he owns a record of 173-93, good for a .650 winning percentage. With 173 career conference victories, Stratos again ranks second among active coaches in the WCC.

Class of 2008
With the departure of seniors Emily Day, Lauren Kirk, Erin Downey and Lindsay Banas, LMU will have some big shoes to fill this season. Most notably, the Lions will be without the stellar play of Day, who collected a WCC-best 18 double-doubles last year. In addition, she placed second in the conference, and 18th in the nation, in kills with 484 at a rate of 4.32, and second in the WCC with 557 points at a rate of 4.97 per set. Her 28 service aces at a .25 rate ranked 10th, while her 326 digs at a rate of 2.91 digs per set ranked eighth in the WCC. In conference matches alone, Day was third in kills (219 total/4.06 per set) and points (254.0 total/4.70 per set). She was also the team-leader in attacks (1,303), kills (484), service aces (28) and digs (326), and was second in block solos (23) and total blocks (67). Kirk was once again a mainstay in the Lion lineup as a senior, playing in all 30 of LMU's matches, and 99 of the 112 sets on the year. She managed 32 assists, 12 service aces and 189 digs at a rate of 1.91 per set. Her dig total placed her second on the team behind Day. Downey appeared in 90 sets for LMU last year, recording 133 kills at rate of 1.48 per set while hitting .276. Active on the block, she posted 10 block solos, 49 block assists and 59 total blocks at a .66 blocks-per-set pace. Downey's .276 hitting percentage, 10 block solos, 49 block assists and 59 total blocks all placed her third on the team.

Entering the 2009 campaign, the LMU Record Books have seen a few changes. Day's 484 kills at a rate of 4.32 per set last year each place her 10th in the All-Time Single-Season book, while her team-leading 1,303 attacks in 2008 place her eighth. One of just seven members in the 1,000 career dig/1,000 career kills club, she finished her LMU career ranked third all-time in digs (1,181), fourth in total attacks (4,171) and kills (1,521), sixth in kill average (3.61) and sets played (421), eighth in aces (116), and 10th in solo blocks (70) and dig average (2.81). Becky Stehling, who returns for her junior season in 2009, already pervades the books. Her .369 hitting percentage last year was the fourth-best mark in program history, while she also places third in career attack percentage (.353) entering this year.

The 2009 LMU Lions
This year, led by a group of young and talented returnees and a host of highly-touted newcomers, the Lions will try to improve upon a sixth-place finish in the West Coast Conference and return to the top of the WCC. LMU, which does not feature a senior on its roster, will rely heavily on its All-WCC selections from a year ago. Sophomore Ariana Covington, who garnered All-Freshman recognition in her inaugural season last year, will likely see plenty of chances from the outside hitter position on the attack. Possibly playing an even bigger role will be junior Becky Stehling, who will be expected to continue to hit at a high percentage while also excelling on the block. Stehling was the team-leader in block solos (26), block assists (52) and total blocks (78) last year, and with another year of experience under her belt, look for her to be a force to be reckoned with in the middle of the court both offensively and defensively.

Coach Stratos and his staff have put together a roster that includes seven new options in freshmen Felicia Arriola, Olivia Bailey, Kenna Crouse, Arin Dear-Walker, Nikki Lane, Katie Lawler and Samantha Spees.

"With the addition of seven new accomplished athletes to our program, and the very successful spring that we've had with a young squad already, our future looks very bright indeed."

Arriola, a four-year varsity starter for Dana Hills High School, was named All-South Coast League at the conclusion of each of her four seasons on the court. A three-time Most Valuable Player for her squad, she was named First Team All-America after helping the Laguna Beach Volleyball Club to a 16-and-under Open Junior Olympic Championship. Her Laguna Beach 18 1's club team is considered by many to be the No. 1 club team in the state of California.

According to Stratos, "Felicia is a tremendous athlete and a very powerful hitter. She is a great all-around volleyball player, and owns incredible volleyball skills. I feel she can potentially help us on both the left and right side, and she could very well become the primary passer for us right away."

Bailey, a 2007 AAU All-American and member of the Skyline Club Team in Texas, was a four-year varsity letter winner for The Hockaday School. Named All-Southwest Preparatory Conference and All-North Zone in each of her last three seasons, the 6'0" setter was named to PrepVolleyball.com's "Senior Aces" list. A two-time conference Most Valuable Player, she is also an accomplished beach volleyball player after winning Regional Championships in 2005 and 2006.

"Olivia plays for one of the best club volleyball teams in Texas," Stratos said. "She is a great all-around player who began her career as an outside hitter before developing into one of the top setters in Texas. Olivia is a very intelligent volleyball player and understands the dynamics of the game."

Crouse was a three-year varsity letter winner at Santa Margarita Catholic High School. The 6'1" middle blocker most recently led her team to the CIF Division I-AA title and a spot in the semifinals of the State Championship. A stellar student off the court after being named to the President's Honor Roll in all four years at Santa Margarita, she helped her team to the Junior Olympic 16 Open Championship and a bronze medal as a part of the Junior Olympic 18 Club team.

"Kenna is a talented middle blocker with a very live arm," Stratos said. "She is a very accomplished player already, having competed at extremely high levels as part of her high school and club teams. Kenna plays with tremendous enthusiasm and is a flat-out winner, showcased by her success in the Junior Olympics and her recent run to the State Semifinals."

Dear-Walker, a three-year varsity starter at John W. North High School, garnered All-League recognition in each of her three varsity seasons. A four-time Scholar-Athlete, she led her team in kill percentage and kills-per-set en route to being named All-County honorable mention as a junior and senior.

"Arin is a very athletic individual that has the potential to develop into a successful Division I volleyball player," Stratos said.

Lane, a three-time All-Prep League selection at Chadwick High School, garnered All-CIF honors as a junior in 2007. An All-Tournament selection at the Brentwood Classic and the North High Tournament, she served as her team's captain as a junior and senior. Also named MVP of the Bretheren Christian Tournament as a junior in high school, she is a member of the South Bay Volleyball Club, playing under Assistant Coach Larry Smoot on the club side. In club competition, she participated in the Junior Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah, Atlanta, Ga., and in the Open Division in Minneapolis, Minn. in 2007.

"Nikki is a very accomplished setter. She has played on one of the premier clubs in the south bay, South Bay Volleyball Club, for one of our assistants, Larry Smoot. She has had a lot of success at both the high school and club levels, and will be a great addition to the other talented setters we have already in place, and coming into the program this year."

Lawler, who prepped at Newport Harbor High School, considered one of the premier high school volleyball teams in the country, was a two-year starter and helped lead her squad to a Sunset League Championship in 2007. That team advanced to the CIF Division I Quarterfinals. A captain of her 18's 2 club team in 2007, she also guided her squad to a third-place finish at the Ann Kang Hawai'i Tournament in 2008.

"Katie comes to our program from one of the premier high schools in the country, Newport Harbor High School. Prepping there, she has emerged as a very talented volleyball player with an abundance of skill. She has the ability to play as an outside hitter, but could potentially vie for the libero position as well in 2009."

Spees, named first team All-State for the state of Virginia as a senior, was a Prep Volleyball All-American and was named to the Prep Volleyball Senior Aces list. The Concorde District Player of the Year in 2008, she was also named Northern Region Player of the Year that same season. A four-time All-Northern Region Tournament selection and two-time team captain, she garnered second team All-District as a junior en route to being named a Virginia Gatorade Player of the Year nominee as a senior.

"Samantha is one of the most accomplished seniors coming out of Virginia this year. She has tremendous accolades, including being named All-State and Most Valuable Player in her region. She comes from a tremendous volleyball family, as her father was a Southern California standout in beach volleyball, and also played indoors and was very accomplished there as well."

The 2009 Lineup
The seven newcomers join a program that returns three starters, having lost senior starters Emily Day, Erin Downey and Lauren Kirk, and sophomore Renee Horton. Although the loss of all four players could be seen as a massive blow to a squad consisting of no seniors, the Lions have always had depth at several positions, and this year is no exception. A core of young returnees anxious for their shot to lead the team to greatness, teamed with a handful of eager freshmen looking to showcase their talents at the next level, should result in battles for starting positions and an exciting and successful season in 2009.

Outside Hitter
Considered one of the team's "go-to" players this year, Ariana Covington returns to the outside hitter position this season. Covington, a WCC All-Freshman team honoree a year ago, finished her first season with 310 kills, placing second on the team in that category, and first in terms of freshmen. Her 876 total attacks also placed her second on the squad. She averaged 2.77 kills-per-set, good for first in the WCC among her freshmen counterparts, while hitting .201 over the course of the year. Covington also proved active at the net with 23 total blocks, including five solos and 18 assists en route to finishing the year with 333 total points. In WCC play, the Carlsbad, Calif. native was the top freshman in terms of kills, collecting 170 at a rate of 3.15 per set. Staying hot throughout the year, she recorded 10 or more kills on 18 occasions, including 14 of her last 16 matches. Covington will not be alone in the hunt for swings from the outside, as a handful of freshmen in Alaina Bergsma, Felicia Arriola, Katie Lawler, Sammy Spees and Arin Dear-Walker, along with sophomore Jasmine Rankins, provide the coaching staff with strong options at the position.

In one of many battles to be won throughout the season at various positions in the starting lineup, sophomore Emily Cheek, along with freshmen Alaina Bergsma and Felicia Arriola, will compete for time playing opposite the setter. Last year, Cheek played in 15 of LMU's 30 matches, starting four, despite missing time due to injury. She collected 37 kills on the year and managed 10 blocks, including three solos and seven assists. Bergsma, who redshirted her true-freshman campaign a year ago, had an outstanding spring season for the Lions, and should find time somewhere on the court on a regular basis. Sophomore Jasmine Rankins and junior Megan Nash could also vie for time at the opposite position.

Another battle to be won on the court throughout the season is at the starting setter position. Alesha Young, who served as the team's starting setter during the spring, will battle for playing time with freshman Olivia Bailey. Young appeared in 18 matches, starting five, as a freshman last year. She finished second on the team in assists, passing-out 167 at a rate of 3.63 per set, while also collecting five aces. Proving her worth from the service area late in the season, three of her five total service aces came against WCC foes down the stretch. Bailey, a 2007 AAU All-American and two-time conference MVP, is joined by Nikki Lane as the two freshmen setters on this year's roster.

Defensive Specialist
The Lions once again find themselves with an impressive amount of depth, albeit young, at the defensive specialist position this year. Four players, two sophomores and two freshmen, will compete for time on the court. Lauren DeGrandmont showcased her talent during the spring, serving as the starting libero throughout. DeGrandmont appeared in 29 matches and 93 sets for the Lions as a freshman last year, serving-up four aces and dishing-out 16 assists. She managed 146 digs at a rate of 1.57 per set, including a personal-best 11 digs on two occasions. Her dig total placed her fourth on the team, and first in terms of freshmen, last year. Fellow sophomore, Diana Hiromoto, will also fight for time on the court. Hiromoto appeared in 51 sets and 16 matches as a freshman, and was named to the Four Points Sheraton LAX/LMU Volleyball Classic All-Tournament team after serving-up seven aces and posting 33 digs. One of the best servers on the team, she notched 20 service aces at a rate of .39 per set, tops on the squad. Hiromoto, who collected 118 digs at a rate of 2.31 per set, also notched 15 assists last season. Freshmen Katie Lawler and Sammy Spees round out the competition at the defensive specialist position, as both players have a good chance to find time throughout the year.

Middle Blocker
Just like at the outside hitter position, LMU also has a "go-to" player at middle blocker in junior Becky Stehling. Stehling, who enters the season with a .353 career hitting percentage, placing third in LMU's Career Record Book, was an All-West Coast Conference honorable mention selection last year. She started all 30 matches and 112 sets for the Lions as a sophomore, notching 277 kills and averaging 2.47 per set, both good for third on the team. Stehling connected at a .369 clip on 596 attacks to pace the Lions in hitting percentage, a mark that ranked 27th in the nation, fourth in the WCC, and fourth in LMU's Single Season Record Book at the conclusion of the year. The Austin, Texas native was the team-leader in block solos with 26, block assists with 52, and total blocks with 78 en route to totaling 351 points at a rate of 3.13 per set over the course of the season, ranking second on the team. In WCC play alone, she managed 135 kills, hitting .386 over the span, to place third in the conference in hitting percentage. Megan Nash, also in her junior season, is another stellar option at the middle blocker position. Nash appeared in 27 matches, starting 25 for the Lions last year. She was named MCM Elegante Lobo Classic All-Tournament after playing in all 10 sets and posting 18 kills at a .362 clip, making just one attack error in 47 attempts over the course of the tournament. In all, she collected 125 kills and hit .277, good for second on the team and 15th in the West Coast Conference last season. She also worked hard on the block, collecting six block solos and 50 block assists, two behind the team-leader in Stehling. Joining the juniors, who happen to be the only upperclassmen on the team this season, at middle blocker are freshmen Kenna Crouse and Arin Dear-Walker. Crouse, a highly-touted player out of high school, could find time immediately for the Lions this year.

2009 Schedule
Lion fans always see an impressive schedule for LMU volleyball, and this year is no exception. The Lions will play 12 matches against teams that qualified for last year's NCAA tournament.

Establishing itself as one of the strongest volleyball conferences in the country, of the seven teams on the docket that made the trip to the postseason last year, five came from the West Coast Conference, the most since it sent a conference-record six teams in 2003. Last year's total also marked the highest percentage of teams from any conference in the country to make it to the tournament. In addition, the five teams last year marked the 12th year in a row that the WCC had sent at least three teams to the playoffs.

The Lions will kick-off the season with its annual alumnae match on August 22 in Gersten Pavilion. From there, LMU will start the regular season, traveling to Fort Worth, Texas to compete against Grambling State, Arkansas and host Texas Christian University at the TCU Tournament from August 28-29.

Tournament play continues for the Lions from September 4-5 as they once again hit the road, this time heading to Las Vegas, Nev. for the UNLV Tournament, featuring matches against Idaho, UNLV and UCLA, which advanced to the Sweet Sixteen just a year ago. After six tournament matches on the road, LMU will host its first and only regular-season tournament from September 11-12, the Crowne Plaza LAX Tournament. Houston, Boise State and UC Irvine will all travel to Los Angeles to battle with the Lions in Gersten Pavilion.

At the conclusion of the home tournament, LMU will welcome Cal State Northridge on September 15 before once again hitting the road for its final regular-season tournament. The University of Pacific will hold its tournament from September 18-19, where LMU will match-up against Nevada, Cal State Bakersfield and the Tigers.

Following a non-conference showdown between the Lions and UC Santa Barbara on September 22, LMU will open WCC play at home against San Diego (October 1) and Saint Mary's (October 3), two teams that made the NCAA Tournament last year.

Portland and Gonzaga host the Lions on October 8 and 10, respectively, before LMU once again squares-off against a NCAA participant in cross-town rival Pepperdine on the road on October 17. The battles do not get any easier for the crimson and navy from there, as they host another pair of NCAA qualifiers in Santa Clara (October 22) and San Francisco (October 24). Santa Clara was the only WCC team to advance to the second round of the playoffs a year ago.

The Lions close the season with another challenge, traveling to Long Beach, Calif. to face the 49ers on November 28. Long Beach State not only made the 2008 NCAA Tournament, but advanced to the second round before falling to Stanford, the runner-up for the National Championship.

"As is the case every year, we have a tremendous non-conference schedule. In addition, our conference continues to show that it is one of the toughest in America, and we anticipate every match being a well-fought battle," Stratos said.