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West Cost Countdown: Dons Look to Youth to Bring Them Back to the Postseason

Aug. 21, 2009

San Francisco posted one of the most prolific seasons in program history in 2008, finishing with a 22-8 overall record, a second place finish in West Coast Conference and the Dons' second-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament. USF earned national rankings for four weeks thanks to strong play in conference action, defeating three nationally ranked teams in as many weeks, and rolling through the opening half of league action undefeated.

With seven returning letter winners and a talented group of newcomers, San Francisco looks to continue the momentum from last season into the program's 33rd season of volleyball. In 2009, the Dons will continue the push towards the top of the standings, focused on their fifth consecutive winning season.

A New Look for the 2009 Dons
USF welcomes back seven letter winners from last season, but will have to fill some big voids after the graduation of four heavily decorated starters. With the departure of Carly Babin, Alix Gombos and Darcy Carroll, three All-WCC honorees in 2008, as well as Addie Webster, the Dons will turn towards seven newcomers to lead the team to the postseason.

Entering his third year on the Hilltop, head coach Gilad Doron is anxious and excited about the blend of experience with exciting newcomers.

"Anytime you replace 4 starters who played for 3 or 4 years during their college years it will be tough to replace," commented Doron. "However, our young players are motivated to continue on the path we started to build for our program in the past two seasons and with the help of key returning players we can grow to be a competitive program in the WCC if we stay healthy and continue to believe in the process."

Seniors Set To Lead USF
San Francisco carries a young squad into the 2009 campaign, returning just three starters into the upcoming season. The Dons will have to fill the void left by Babin, Gombos, Carroll and Webster, who accounted for over half of the kills from the 2008 offense and collectively posted a .308 hitting percentage. Leading the Dons into the new era will be seniors Haley Carroll and Anna Berger.

Carroll continues to be one of the most dominant defensive players in the West Coast Conference and in USF history. She enters her senior campaign on pace to shatter San Francisco records, ranking second in career digs.

Berger will be looking to rebound from a nagging foot injury and finish her career on the Hilltop with a flourish. Berger, who will see time at outside hitter, looks to shine in her senior season in the Green and Gold.

"Anna and Haley both played major rolls in last years success and it is essential that they share and teach the younger players what it means, what it takes to practice and play with the mind set we set for this team," Doron said. "Haley has been the most dominate defensive player in the WCC over the past three seasons and she needs to have her best season this year to help take some pressure from the younger players. Anna, will need to assume a bigger roll and responsibility on the net as well as in the back row, in order for us to be successful."

Returners Ready To Emerge For USF
Junior Sarah Mandala led the Dons in three offensive categories and is set to return as a continuing threat for San Francisco this fall. The two-time All-WCC honoree, including a first team selection in 2008, paced the team last season with 413 kills, averaging 3.62 a set and points with 474.0. Heading into her junior campaign, the native of San Dimas, is plowing through the record books, ranking 14th with 763 all-time kills and listed fourth with a career average of 3.52.

Junior setter Alaina Sully will take over duties from four-year starter Darcy Carroll, who the Dons lost to graduation. Sully has gained valuable experience in the first half of her career, appearing in 102 matches. In 2008, the Irvine native recorded six matches with 20-plus assists.

Also returning to the court this year for the Green and Gold are sophomores Leinani Keanini and Erin Bragg. Keanini, a libero/outside hitter returns this season after suffering a season-ending injury midway through the conference season last fall. Prior to being sidelined, the Hawai'i native appeared in 19 matches during her rookie campaign. Bragg appeared in all 30 matches last season as a middle blocker, earning a season high six block against then-No. 24 Long Beach. Both Keanini and Bragg are expected to bolster the group of returning veterans for the 2009 season.

"This fall we expect Sarah to take on a much larger role on the court," adds Doron."We have the confidence that she will become a top athlete in our conference as she continues to grow as a player. Alaina is expected to take a larger role in running our offense. In her third season, she knows what it takes and I hope she continue to grow her game and leadership skills to help build this years team personality. Erin, returns this fall after a good spring season. If she continues to learn and play with confidence she can become a dominate middle in the WCC this year. Lei, is a good volleyball player but she needs to be totally healthy to be effective on the court. This returning core is expected to take a major role in this year new team and how we continue to grow as a unit over the course of the season."

Newcomers Bring Different Look To Dons' Squad
The Dons will welcome eight newcomers to the Hilltop this season. The 2009 incoming class includes six freshmen, a redshirt freshman and a senior, Lauren Quach. Quach will join USF this season, while Erin Kilroy will make her first appearance in a San Francisco uniform after red-shirting last season. Joining Quach and Kilroy to the long list of talented newcomers are freshmen Elyse Cohen (Lafayette), Lauren Bergold (Mission Viejo), Jordan Irish (Edmonds, Wash.), Alycia Cox (San Antonion, Texas), Hadley Simmons (Santa Barbara) and Leanna Ludes (Vancouver, Wash.).

Kilroy, who reigns from Portland, Ore., is a two-time all-state performer and the 2007 Oregon 6A State Player of the Year. After redshirting last season, the opposite is poised to make an impact this season with the Dons.

San Francisco native, Quach, joins San Francisco after a hiatus from the court. The libero earned all-league honorable mention accolades during her prep career at Saint Ignatius in The City.

Bergold will bolster the opposite position for San Francisco. Bergold joins Doron's squad from Capistrano High in Mission Viejo. The 2007 South Coast League Most Valuable Player, Bergold was highly recruited after leading her squad to the CIF Quarterfinals in 2007 and 2008.

Cohen, a libero from Lafayette, comes to USF after a strong career at Acalanes High. As a Don at Acalanes, she was a two-time North Coast Section Scholar Athlete, while earning third team All-East Bay honors as a senior.

Cox travels to the Hilltop from San Antonio, Texas, where he was a two-time 5A All-State selection. The outside hitter led Churchill High to the Texas Regional Finals or Quarterfinals in all four years as a varsity starter.

Irish joins USF from Kings HS in Edmonds, Wash., where the 6-2 middle blocker was an 1A All-State First Team honoree as a senior. After finishing third in 2007 and 2006, Irish led her squad to the 2008 1A State Championship Title.

Also from Washington, Ludes comes to San Francisco from Skyview in Vancouver. A two-time all-state setter, Ludes recently traveled to the 2009 Global Challenge in Europe as a member of the Northern California Volleyball Academy.

Simmons rounds out newcomers to the Dons after a strong career at Santa Barbara. The 6-2 middle blocker was a member of the squad that won the Channel League Championship Title, advancing to the CIF State Playoffs and a state ranking of seventh.

"Eight new players is a lot for any program to add at once," said Doron. "We have been working them very hard this pre season and hope they can take the information and run with it. I know it will not be an easy task but we have great confidence in this group coming in.We are very excited to see their individual growth and how they can impact our team during this season and in the next four years."

Sully returns to the Hilltop as the incumbent this season after playing her first two seasons as an understudy. Sully is expected to take over running the offense this season after gaining valuable experience in the first half of her career.

Providing depth at the position will be Ludes, a two-time Columbian All-Region Volleyball Player of the Year. The talented recruit was also named the All-Greater St. Helens Volleyball Player of the Year on two occasions.

Libero/Defensive Specialist
Once again, Carroll will serve as the Dons' go-to libero. Carroll, a three-time All-West Coast Conference libero and 2007 WCC Defensive Player of the Year, enjoyed another standout season as a junior, ranking in the top-five all-time in single season digs (520). The native of Gilroy also propelled herself into the USF career record books, ranking second in career digs (1,564) and topping the career digs per set list with a 4.77 average. Over the summer, Carroll added to her resume, gaining national attention by being named to the US National A2 team.

Keanini, who also can add depth at the outside hitter position, will add support to Carroll. Cohen and Quach also join the Dons as defensive specialists and are expected to battle for time on the court.

Right Side/Opposite
Mandala will once again lead the Dons at the opposite position. The junior has turned in two of the most prolific careers in program history at the position. As a freshman, Mandala shattered the freshman kills record by 73, finishing with 350 kills. Last season, she continued her dominating ways, leading the Dons with 413 kills, ranking 11th on the single season all-time list. The two-time All-WCC performer heads into her junior campaign listed 14th on the all-time ranks with 763, averaging 3.52, placing her fourth all-time in USF history.

Adding depth at the position will be redshirt freshman Kilroy. She joined San Francisco in 2008 after a stellar prep career at Jesuit in Portland, where she was a two-time Metro League Player of the Year. After sitting out last season, Kilroy is poised to fight for time on the right side.

Middle Blocker
The Dons' middle blocker position this season will have a completely different look from that 2008, after losing the best middle blocking tandem in program history. Alix Gombos and Carly Babin graduated in the spring, leaving a hole for this year's team to fill. Last season, Gombos and Babin combined for over a third of USF's total kills, posting a combined .399 hitting average with a total of 220 blocks, accounting for just under 85 percent of th Dons' 260 total blocks.

Filling the void this season will be a young corps of middle blockers, headlined by sophomore Bragg. She saw time as a reserve at the position last season, gaining experience that will provide beneficial in 2009. Also fighting for time as a middle blocker will be a talented group of established freshmen, Irish and Simmons.

Outside Hitter
Fifth-year senior Berger returns for her final campaign on the Hilltop and will lead the Dons at the outside hitter position. A year ago, Berger played in 17 matches after being sidelined early in the season with an injury. As a returning veteran, Berger will be looking towards better health and a strong season to cap her career in the Green and Gold.

Keanini can add depth at the position, but is returning to the court after missing the last part of the season due to an injury.

Joining Berger and Keanini at the position is a talented duo of freshmen, Bergold and Cox. Bergold comes as a decorated recruit out of Mission Viejo, where she was the 2007 South Coast MVP and a two-time offensive player of the year. Cox travels to San Francisco via San Antonio, where she led Churchill High to the Texas Regional Finals in 2005 and the quarterfinals 2006-08.

Dons To Play 13 Matches Against NCAA Tournament Teams
USF will face a challenging schedule in 2009, playing nine teams in 13 matches that advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 2008. Included in the nine teams is a match against National Champion runner-up and Bay Area foe, Stanford. The match between the Cardinal and the Green and Gold will be the first since the 2004 season.

San Francisco will open the 2009 campaign August 28 at the Oregon Classic in Eugene, Ore. During the three-day tournament USF will face host Oregon, Missouri State and Eastern Washington. Both Oregon and Missouri State advanced to the postseason last year.

USF will then return to the Hilltop on Labor Day weekend to host the annual USF Asics Challenge at War Memorial Gym for the first home events held at the facility since renovations and installation of a new floor. During the two-day tournament, the Dons will host San Diego State, Cal State Northridge and Rice. San Francisco will face the Spartans Sept. 4 before taking on Cal State Northridge. The next day, the Green and Gold will face Rice, a 2008 NCAA Tournament team. Following the tournament, USF will continue its four-match homestand with a contest against Texas A&M, marking the return of former USF head coach and 1987 WCC Coach of the Year Laurie Corbelli.

The Dons will make a short trip the next weekend, Sept. 11-12, to Sacramento to play in the Hornet Invitational. While at the event, USF will face host Sacramento State, Alabama and Fresno State.

San Francisco will then return to the Bay Area for a pair of matches against Stanford and California as part of the Pacific-10/West Coast Conference Challenge. USF will conclude non-conference action Sept. 26, as it hosts Cal State Bakersfield on the Hilltop.

"This is by far our most challenging schedule we have played since I started here in 2007," Doron said. "If we look at each opponent one at a time I think we can gain valuable experiences come conference time. I do see us been challenged in many ways with our preseason schedule. It will be up to the returning players to learn on the go what it means to lead a team."

West Coast Conference
The WCC slate also poses to be a challenge for the Dons, as last season the league advanced five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Over the past six seasons, the league has emerged as one of the premier volleyball conferences in the country. In the past five seasons, the WCC has owned a national top-five ranking in the RPI on three occasions. Last season, the WCC had five schools with RPI's under 50, trailing only the Pac-10 (7) and the Big Ten (7).

In 2008, San Francisco fell just a league victory short of the Championship, giving way to San Diego's title and automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament. In addition to USF and USD, Santa Clara, Saint Mary's and Pepperdine represented the Conference in the postseason.

Competition this season should remain intense as San Diego and Santa Clara enter the season in the preseason rankings, while Pepperdine is receiving votes. San Francisco will open the home slate of the WCC season on Oct. 2 as it hosts Santa Clara in the annual DiG PiNK Breast Cancer Awareness match.

"I am looking forward to another great WCC year," Doron commented. "I feel that each of the eight teams has improved and it will be very important that we come in with the same confidence that carried us last year. The late start of the WCC season should give us some time to get our team enough time to build the chemistry and trust we need to play in a very tough league."