In rebounding from two losses with a win at a season-opening tournament in California last weekend, a youthful UAA volleyball team showed the ability to learn fast.
With three upperclassmen on a 16-player roster, the Seawolves will have to continue a rapid progression behind the leadership of seniors Nikkie Viotto and Kimya Jafroudi, if they hope to find continued success.
"We do have a lot of young players on the team, so just getting them used to the college game, the quickness of the game and the mentality of college volleyball is little bit of a challenge," UAA coach Chris Green said.
The Seawolves (1-3) managed their only win at the Otter Classic in large part due to solid performances from freshmen Julia Mackey, Katelynn Zanders and Sarah Johnson.
The trio, who all played their high school volleyball in Alaska, combined for 32 of UAA's 38 kills in a sweep of Academy of Art. Mackey, who played for West Valley in Fairbanks, led the way with 15 kills and a .636 hitting percentage.
"The balls were just so much harder than you expected, but you know you want to be there, you want to hit it back at them harder," said Mackey. "It was so exciting, so much faster, just a high intensity. I loved it."
Zanders and Johnson played together at South last season, helping the Wolverines win a state title without dropping a set all season. Zanders said having her high school teammate close makes the college transition easier, but Johnson thinks going from such a dominant position in high school to starting all over as freshmen takes some getting used to.
"It's definitely different, a lot more intense and serious than high school, so we definitely have to step it up since we're not the seniors anymore," Johnson said.
The Seawolves will play their first home matches this weekend in the Springhill Suites Invitational tournament at the Wells Fargo Sports Complex, starting with a 1 p.m. match against Dixie State on Friday. While the home crowd will be capable of firing up the Seawolves, there is also the potential for some nerves.
"I hope that being away and playing some very good teams in California helped to calm those nerves down," Green said. "Now, it's going to be the second week of volleyball, so hopefully they're a little more relaxed, a little more comfortable."
With the Seawolves recently losing three experienced players, there will be plenty of opportunity for young players to garner playing time as the lineup settles into place, Green said. Offseason surgery meant senior Ariel Austin wouldn't have been able to return to the court until September, so she opted to end her volleyball career to focus on academics.
Quincey Haught, a defensive leader last season, left the team a week before practice due to personal reasons, and junior middle blocker Robyn Burton, who often thrilled fans with her high-flying kill shots, practiced with the team a week before finding out she was academically ineligible.
Which players will fill which positions is uncertain at this point, but junior transfer Jodi Huddleston from Western Nebraska Community College has filled Burton's spot nicely thus far.
"She did a good job this weekend and is pretty consistent," Green said. "She's not a flashy player, but she gets the job done, gets her kills and has a pretty high hitting percentage too."
One of the toughest spots to fill will be the outside hitter role vacated by Jackie Matthisen, who was named Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year as a senior last season. Players are still competing for the position, Green said, and it's possible a freshman could win the spot.
"Katelynn does a great job and she jumps very well, so she is someone who is kind of fun to watch," Green said. "Sarah Johnson (6-foot-1) is blessed with being very tall, and she's just a very controlled player, has very good ball control, so we really are counting on her."
Reach Jeremy Peters at email@example.com or 257-4335.
By JEREMY PETERS
Anchorage Daily News