On the heels of 11 consecutive trips to the NCAA playoffs, the Cal State East Bay women’s volleyball team is looking to make an immediate impact in the move up to Division II in 2009.
After going 29-5 last season, the Pioneers will face stiff competition in its new conference, the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA), which features 2008 national runner-up Cal State San Bernardino.
“This year will be the biggest challenge we’re going to face in the transition to Division II,” CSUEB Head Coach Jim Spagle said. “The goal is just to compete. This season will be a real teaching opportunity for me as well as a great learning opportunity for the team. I think we’re up to the challenge.”
Spagle has led the Pioneers to seven straight 25-win campaigns and will now guide them into Division II competition in his 14th year at the helm. Spagle has led his squads at Cal State East Bay to a 350-97 (.783) record and 11 straight NCAA Division III West Regional appearances.
Despite losing All-American Jackie Randolph and Association of Division III Independents (AD3I) All-Independent First Team selection Kelly Paris to graduation, the Pioneers welcome back a core group of players from last year’s squad that finished the season ranked 13th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division III poll.
Among the returning players is a trio of juniors who will play key roles this season – setter Roxanne Neely, libero Lauren Massa and middle blocker Ariel Ajagu. As the Pioneers’ starting setter in 2008, Neely set up over seven kills per game and also led the squad in service aces with 52 on the year to earn AD3I All-Independent Second Team honors. Defensively, Massa paced the team with nearly five digs per game and Ajagu led the way at the net, posting a team-high 59 total blocks.
“Lauren, Roxanne and Ariel are going to be really important for us this year,” Spagle said. “They have the experience and attitude to lead this team. Ariel, in particular, will be counted on heavily to set the tone for the 2009 campaign with her strong communication skills and passionate play in the middle.”
The Pioneers also welcome a large group of quality newcomers including seven freshmen and five transfers, several of whom are expected to make their presence felt immediately.
Sukjit Athwal, a sophomore from Fresno State, brings the ability to play outside hitter, opposite and middle blocker, while Cara Crowder, a junior outside hitter from Cal State Northridge, will be a key to the 2009 offense. Kylin Ellison (San Joaquin Delta), Ysabel Zuleta (San Jose City) and Kayla Woods (Monterey Peninsula) complete the 2009 transfer group.
“Sukjit is really talented and can do a lot,” Spagle said. “She’s very versatile and can play more than one position. Cara is a big outside hitter who was dominant in high school but didn’t get a lot of chances at Northridge. We’re going to be counting on her to help out a lot offensively.”
Leta Pickett (Temple – Texas), Kitona Offord (Channelview) and Sammi Brandstetter (Crescent Valley) lead a class of outstanding incoming freshmen. Pickett, a 6-1 opposite, and Offord, an athletic middle blocker, should play a big role in the offense, while Brandstetter will compete with Massa for the libero position while providing support in the back row.
“Leta is a dynamic player,” Spagle said. “She’s strong and has a great attitude on the court. I’m asking her to make an immediate impact. Kittona is very athletic and is what we’re going to need in the middle to compete in the CCAA.”
Joining Pickett, Offord and Brandstetter are Brianna Bryant (Alta Loma), Krystal Robinson (Grossmont), Jenna Tiller (Olympus) and Rachel Vetterlein (Del Oro), who round out the 2009 freshmen class and will provide much-needed support for a squad with a difficult schedule ahead of it.
“This is basically an entirely new team,” Spagle said. “It’s going to take some time to get everyone buying into the system and trusting one another. There are a lot of variables, but moving to Division II and having a lot of new faces on the team is like having a new job. It’s very exciting.”
Cal State East Bay will open its first season in Division II competition Aug. 27 at the Aqua Hotel Invitational in Honolulu, Hawai’i. Upon returning to the mainland, CSUEB will take on Chaminade, Saint Martin’s, Hawai’i Pacific and Notre Dame de Namur at the California Clash hosted by San Francisco State Sept. 4 and 5, to close out the preseason.
The Pioneers will jump into CCAA play for the first time on Sept. 9, hosting UC San Diego in their 2009 home opener. CSUEB’s initial road trip of conference play will be a challenge as it travels to Southern California, meeting perennial powerhouse Cal State San Bernardino and making stops at Pomona, Cal State Dominguez Hills and Cal State LA on consecutive weekends.
The team will finish out the month of September at home, hosting Cal State Stanislaus and Cal State Chico to wrap up the first half of the season. The four-match homestand closes out on Oct. 2 and 3 when the Pioneers welcome San Francisco State and Cal State Monterey Bay before heading north to Sonoma State and Humboldt State to complete the first half of the double-round robin conference slate.
The Pioneers’ second four-match home swing begins with the rematch with the Coyotes on Oct. 16 and is capped by a visit from the Toros on Oct. 24. A final non-conference matchup with NDNU opens Cal State East Bay’s season-long six-match road trip that takes the squad to both Northern and Southern California between Oct. 27 and Nov. 7. CSUEB will then wrap up the season at home, playing host to Humboldt State and Sonoma State the second weekend of November.