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West Coast Countdown: Sophomores Key to Waves Success

Aug. 26, 2009

Half the roster may be new, but an experienced core of veterans has Pepperdine women's volleyball coach Nina Matthies excited about the 2009 season.

Six letterwinners, five of whom were starters, are back from the 2008 squad that made the school's 20th NCAA Tournament appearance. Another likely starter -- a potential All-American, according to Matthies -- redshirted last season, giving Pepperdine's potential lineup even more punch. Seven newcomers will be added to the mix, but the Waves won't necessarily need to rely on many of them right away.

"We put these teams together to win the conference," said Matthies, who heads into her 27th season as head coach with an overall record of 494-294 and a West Coast Conference-record 10 league titles. "I think this team has the pieces to do it and to make a run in the NCAA Tournament. Sometimes the mix of youth and veterans is the perfect formula to do that. The veterans know what it takes, and the young players don't really know, so they just come in and play hard."

Despite a veteran lineup with multiple All-American candidates, the Waves will still feature a youthful team. The returning starters include two seniors and three sophomores, and a redshirt sophomore and a true freshman will probably handle the other spots. But Matthies likes the growth and maturity she has seen with her returning underclassmen.

"What I liked the most about our spring season was that it didn't matter if we were ahead, it didn't matter if were behind," Matthies said. "If we fell behind, someone stepped up. The last couple of years we got into trouble because there were times when we would get ahead, but we wouldn't finish strong. This spring, I saw a more confident team. I think we've been lacking that at times. This is going to be a mentally strong team, and that's what is going to carry us."

Building team chemistry by getting seven returners and seven newcomers to mesh is an important goal, Matthies says.

"I'm proud of our seniors for really understanding and embracing the situation," she said. "They want to be team leaders and make sure this team is together. We're got a very tight group with the seven returners. The freshmen that are coming in are pretty tight too. It's going to be a good group, but it's going to take a few weeks to make it happen."

The Waves must replace outside hitter Julie Rubenstein, one of the top hitters in school history and a 2008 AVCA All-American, as well as middle blocker Cassi Chamberlain. Rubenstein was clearly the go-to player the last four years, but that's not a role that will necessarily be filled in 2009.

"There have been teams where we've had a go-to player, and teams where we have been very balanced," said Matthies, who is assisted again by Tim Jensen and Marcio Sicoli. "Both have been successful. I think this group will be very balanced, and that may make us stronger because there's no single player that has to have all the responsibility or pressure."

The Waves have an even stronger non-conference schedule than usual. They'll play local rivals UCLA, USC and UC Santa Barbara, travel to Colorado State's tournament and visit Hawaii for two matches.

"I really think it's a good schedule," Matthies said. "We open up at a great tournament at Colorado State, we get to come home for a couple of weeks and we get a really tough week against UCLA and Hawaii. It will really prepare us for when we go into the conference season. The WCC is so tough. It'll be a challenge again this season but we'll be ready."

The Waves, who went 20-8 overall and tied for fourth place in the WCC last season, were one of five conference schools to make the NCAA Tournament.

Setters

Senior Kiah Fiers (Palos Verdes Estates, Calif./Peninsula HS) is the clear starter, having earned All-WCC honors three times already (2007 first team, 2006 and 2008 honorable mention) while being named a preseason first team selection in 2009. She ranks fifth all-time in assists at Pepperdine (3,313) and rebounded from knee surgery after the 2007 season to post a solid junior campaign (10.68 assists per set).

"We're looking for big things from Kiah in her senior season, and she has not disappointed us by showing up to camp in tremendous physical shape," Matthies said. "She wants to go out with a big year, and she wants to win. She has taken on a big load and understands what it takes to be a leader."

Waiting in the wings will be freshman Justine Hunter (Hollister, Calif./San Benito HS), a late addition to the Waves' recruiting class.

"We were in a little bit of a panic mode after being left with just one setter after the spring, but finding Justine was like finding a gold mine," Matthies said. "She just sort of turned up and wanted to come to Pepperdine. She's a terrific setter and a real leader. She's a bit of a sleeper because she played at a smaller high school and club, but we've watched her and we think she's going to be very good for us."

Outside Hitters

With Rubenstein having departed, senior Rachel Grochmal (Brea, Calif./Brea Olinda HS) can slide back over to outside hitter after playing opposite last season, while sophomore Lilla Frederick (Huntington Beach, Calif./Cornelia Connelly HS) is a returning starter and a member of the U.S. Junior National Team.

The last name of Grochmal might not be familiar to volleyball fans, as veteran Rachel Lumsden got married this past summer. She will be starting for her fourth season for the Waves, and ranks #1 all-time at the school in service aces per set (0.36). She has been named to the All-WCC honorable mention squad twice and is the Waves' top returner in kills (285, 2.85 per set).

"We're happy for Rachel, because she seems very settled and is really ready to have a strong senior season," Matthies said. "I think she's excited for it to be her turn. She has always kind of had to play behind Julie, but now it's Rachel's turn to shine, which will be great. I think she's ready to have the spotlight and really perform well as a senior."

Coming off a WCC All-Freshman season where she averaged 2.39 kills (third on the team) and 2.80 digs (second on the team), Frederick competed this summer with the U.S. at the FIVB World Junior Volleyball Championships in Mexico. She started two matches and had a total of 35 points in 21 sets.

"We're looking for Lilla to take on a bigger load than she did last season," Matthies said. "Playing volleyball all summer with the U.S. will be good for her. She's matured and she's in a comfortable situation, and she will be a very strong outside hitter for us."

Looking to push the two veterans are a couple of freshmen, Caitlin Racich (Santa Barbara, Calif./Dos Pueblos HS) and Ashley Broadwell (Bothell, Wash./Archbishop Murphy HS). Racich was rated #70 on prepvolleyball.com's Senior Aces list and has played on the USA Beach Volleyball Junior National Team.

"Being from Santa Barbara, we've known about Caitlin forever," Matthies said. "She's going to bring a great work ethic and a lot of fire. She can battle for a spot at outside hitter. She needs to get stronger as a hitter but she can definitely compete. She will really help our depth at the outside hitter position and can also play opposite.

"Ashley is probably one of the newcomers that we've seen the least, since she's from Washington and we've only seen her club play sporadically. But when we did, we saw that she had a powerful serve and was an integral part of her team's success. She has wanted to come to Pepperdine since she was in the eighth grade so this will be a good place for her."

Opposite

Redshirt sophomore Kristen Seaton (Terre Haute, Ind./South Vigo HS) is fully recovered from a foot injury that forced her to miss all of last season. Matthies expects great things from Seaton, a 6-foot-5 left-hander, and considers her a potent force on the right side. She did well as a 2007 freshman, averaging 1.88 kills.

"We know her foot injury is behind us," Matthies said. "For some people taking a redshirt year can be tough mentally, but Kristen is stronger from all of the hours in our weight program and is more confident in her game. With three more years to play, I think she's our next All-American. She has all the physical talent and can be the gal to take us to the next level."

Middle Blockers

The Waves have the 2008 WCC Freshman of the Year, 6-foot-4 sophomore Kim Hill (Portland, Ore./Portland Christian HS) back in the middle. She lived up to her billing as one of the nation's top freshmen, leading the WCC in blocks (1.11) while finishing fifth in hitting percentage (.353) and averaging 2.14 kills. After being named honorable mention after the 2008 season, she is a preseason All-WCC first teamer in 2009 and an All-American candidate.

"Kim is a worker and a great person," Matthies said. "Nothing seems to faze her, she's so calm and collected, and that is a great influence on the team. She will lead our younger middle blockers and show them how to do it."

With Chamberlain gone, the one spot that seems destined to be filled by one of the newcomers is middle blocker. The candidates are a pair of true freshmen, 6-foot-3 Victoria Adelhelm (Rancho Santa Fe, Calif./Santa Fe Christian HS) and 6-foot Brittney Clark (San Jose, Calif./Presentation HS), and a redshirt sophomore, 6-foot Janea Rosell (Los Angeles, Calif./Bishop Montgomery HS).

"Each one offers a little something different, and that's going to be good for us," Matthies said. "They present different matchups and different speeds depending on who we're facing, which is a fun weapon to have."

Adelhelm was rated #85 by prepvolleyball.com on its Senior Aces list. Rosell spent the last two years at Arizona State. She redshirted the 2007 season and didn't play volleyball in 2008.

"Victoria is a very enthusiastic player," Matthies said. "She's a big, strong kid who's a great blocker and can hit really well. She has a fantastic work ethic.

"With a sister that played at Santa Clara for four years, one of the things that's going to help Brittney is having watched the ins and outs and ups and downs of collegiate volleyball. She's a little smaller, but has a giant wingspan, a really quick arm and really quick feet.

"Janea spent all summer here at Pepperdine taking classes and working hard in the weight room, and she is extremely fit. She played on some great high school and club teams, but it's been three years. It might not happen right away, but with her maturity level and having already played at the college level before, it should take her just a few weeks to get back into it, and I know she will help us."

Liberos

The Waves have the reigning WCC Defensive Player of the Year, sophomore Stevi Robinson (Hermosa Beach, Calif./Mira Costa HS), back at the libero position. She led the conference with 4.81 digs per set, a figure that ranked #3 on Pepperdine's single-season records list for the rally-scoring era. Both she and Hill were named to prepvolleyball.com's "Rising Stars" list of the nation's top freshmen.

"We've told Stevi that since she was named Defensive Player of the Year as a freshman, she's going to have to get it again or we're all going to be disappointed," Matthies said. "She did some good things last year and is getting better and really figuring things out. She spent all summer here in the weight room and she understands what will take her to the next level. She's going to be fantastic this year and should be one of the best liberos in the country."

Krista Friedman (La Verne, Calif./St. Lucy's Priory HS), the only junior on the roster in terms of eligibility, would like to regain the starting libero position that she held for a portion of her freshman year in 2007. If not, she is still expected to play a key role as a team leader and defensive specialist.

"Krista is a great leader and people follow her in all walks of life," Matthies said. "She does great things and is the backbone of this team. She works hard to make sure everyone is taken care of and happy. She's going to compete with Stevi again for the libero position, and even if it's as the DS, she's sure to get a ton of playing time, which she deserves and has earned."

The final newcomer is freshman Kelli Branning (Menlo Park, Calif./Menlo-Atherton HS), who comes from an extremely athletic family. Her brother Richard is a sophomore on the Pepperdine's men's basketball team, her mother played volleyball at Cal Poly and her father played basketball at Notre Dame and was an NBA draft pick of the Indiana Pacers.

"Kelli is a little bit of a sleeper, but as we watched her through her club season she really gained a lot of confidence," Matthies said. "She could help us as a defensive specialist. She's a really heady volleyball player and seems to be where the ball is all of the time. I'm excited about her ability to contribute to the team."