bleedCrimson.net: The season kicks off on Friday and this is a very challenging schedule, it might not have the biggest names for the people that don't necessarily follow college volleyball but all three non-conference weekends are going to be some pretty stiff tests.
Mike Jordan: Yeah, it really is. You're right it doesn't have a Texas or Stanford but that's by design. We needed to schedule teams that we felt were Top 75 teams in the non-conference RPI-wise to help us out and by help us out I mean help get us to the NCAA tournament for an at-large selection. If you win matches against some of these teams then your RPI is going to get a huge boost because you know they're all going to win a lot. They're all very good teams. If you lose to them it doesn't hurt your RPI number that much, if at all in some cases. It's a challenging schedule there are no guaranteed wins on it and it's going to be a tough test every day. We've got an opportunity to play our way into the NCAA tournament before conference play even starts and that's what we're looking for. If we don't do it, if we're not successful, if we don't get any wins against the good competition then we've still got the automatic qualifier to play for. We're giving ourselves the best chance for a high RPI and quality wins and preparation for the conference slate as well.
bc.net: The conference slate is a little different this year because you've got five new teams coming in so it's almost like your entire schedule is like a non-conference schedule because you're learning about these new teams and unlike last year when there were only eight teams in the conference, you've got a much longer conference schedule this year.
MJ: Yeah and it's going to be a challenging schedule. Obviously the big dog, Hawai'i, is gone but there's still a lot of good teams. Idaho returns a lot of good players from a year ago. Utah State, I think, will be improved. They're a little bit more veteran ball club this year. Then Texas State and Texas-San Antonio had good really good seasons last year with Texas State going to the NCAA Tournament. Those four teams are all solid, they're going to compete and be in the equation down the stretch and I think you've got some teams that have shown a lot of improvement as of late. San Jose State is a team that's vastly underrated. I think they're going to be a lot better, they showed signs of it last year. So I think we're going to have to play really good volleyball to win night-in and night-out.
bc.net: One of the other conference opponents this year is Denver but you'll have a little bit of an idea of how they might play because you've mentioned that their new head coach was an assistant at Colorado State previously and you play Colorado State in the third weekend of the season.
MJ: I don't know how Denver will play. I don't know that their new head coach will play the same style as CSU plays, I don't know if they can. CSU is very physical, big across the board, good athletes. Denver isn't going to have those type of athletes or that kind of size so they'll probably play quicker but they could be a solid team. You never know.
bc.net: This is the first time in a really long time that you've got a little bit of a question mark at the setter position heading into a season.
MJ: Yeah we're inexperienced there for sure. We've got three players at the position that we feel we can win with. We know we have the depth at outside hitter to go between the 5-1 and the 6-2. I feel comfortable that we can win with all three. They all bring different things to the table. Taylor Livoti, the freshman, is the best athlete but the least experienced. Ciara Brown is better at finding the quick hitters than the others as of right now and MJ Keffury is someone who has really improved a lot in the preseason and has put herself in the mix with just being consistent and being a solid volleyball player.
All three of them we can win with but to expect any of them to perform like Jennah is ridiculous and unfair but hopefully they'll just continue to get better as the season goes along.
bc.net: Because you have quality setters how much has that competition here in the early fall preseason helped them?
MJ: It's tough to say. If they're competitive and I think they are, then it's helping it quite a bit. We've seen improvement, they're getting smarter and they're making more plays than they did two weeks ago but they should. If you're mentally weak then the competition can make you fragile, it can make you nervous and afraid to play and make mistakes and we don't want anybody playing that way. What we're telling them all now is that they all have a shot at playing. I think they all will play and we expect them to go out and play within themselves and do the little things that make us go. Obviously locate the volleyball is the number one priority. We've got good size and better arms than we've had in a couple years on both antennas and if they locate it well and put us in position to take good swings then they're doing their jobs. I don't need them to try to play Jennah and try to create a lot of deception or pull off the tremendously athletic play which she sometimes made look easy. I just need them to do what they're capable of doing.
bc.net: You talked a little bit about your hitters and this is as good a group as you might have had in a while and you've also been bolstered by some transfers in there.
MJ: It is our best depth on the antennas in quite a while, maybe ever. It's a group that is interchangeable. They can all play the left or the right which is great. Some are better blockers than others which gives us the ability to match up but still be solid offensively. It gives us the opportunity to rest people. It gives us the opportunity to pull people out of the game if they're struggling. We've had serious injuries the last couple years at that position that really hurt our depth and too often players had to suffer too many growing pains or maybe stay out there when they should have been able to come out of the ballgame. We're very fortunate to have the depth that we have and I think it's also created a very competitive environment in practice which is great.
bc.net: A couple of those hitters in that group are Lauren Loerch who transferred from Cal and Bradley Nash who tore her ACL and had to redshirt after playing just two sets. What do you hope their impact will be for this team especially relieving some of the load that was carried by Meredith Hays last year as a freshman.
MJ: Lauren is a tremendous athlete. She's a big jumper, she's very quick and she can do a lot of things for us. We're excited about her future. She hasn't played a ton of front row time at Cal in her first couple of years so her experience level is more practice level against some of the best competition in the country but she hasn't seen a lot of game experience. We don't want to put too much pressure on her to carry a huge load right away, we'd like her to be a little bit more balanced and I think we're getting to that. Lauren is certainly capable of producing and taking the big swings when we need them.
Bradley is very versatile and does a lot of things very well. Is she 100 percent yet? I don't think so but she's shown steady improvement and is looking very good. The last couple of days I think have been her best and I think she's mentally prepared to compete and physically is closing in on 100 percent.
Both are hopefully going to do a lot of good things for us this year.
bc.net: In the middle you have Desiree Scott coming back and she was voted Preseason All-WAC and you also have Gwen Murphy and Preslie Alexander.
MJ: Gwen's really picking up speed right now. I've really been impressed with her the last week. She's such a physical athlete. She's big, jumps great, she's got good quickness and her shoulder is improving all the time. She's hitting the ball harder, she's reaching better and she's turning herself into the best blocker on the team. I've been very impressed with her from that standpoint which is great because we lost a great blocker to graduation in Michelle Kuester. I think Gwen is going to fill Michelle's shoes really well and hopefully one day will produce even better offensively. I think she's got that ability.
Desiree had a great spring, had a great trip to Europe and was dominant at times at times both offensively and as a blocker. We're hopefully that she's going to put up better numbers than she did a year ago and we need her to. She's got the ability and now she's a junior and has more experience and we expect her to live up to it.
Preslie just got cleared today so she's eligible and ready to go. Preslie is very versatile and can play anywhere in the front row. She's got a nice jump serve. I think we're going to use her in a lot of different ways.
Lexi Wick is a freshman middle from the Austin area that we're pretty high on but Lexi has stress fractures that are going to keep her out. We're going to redshirt her which means that Preslie is going to wind up playing a little bit more middle. Offensively I think she's a very good middle and if Gwen or Des were to get hurt or need a breather Preslie is who you're going to see in the middle. She can also play the left or the right. She's got a really good arm and we're going to find ways to use it.
bc.net; One of the players we didn't talk about on the front row is freshman Nathalie Castellanos. How is she doing in her recovery from the injury that she suffered in high school?
MJ: She looks really good. She had a good preseason. She's a freshman so there's a learning curve there but she's as athletic as can be and athleticism alone is earning her playing time. She's gong to be more of a right side player than anything else. We at one time talked about making her a setter but the injury to her elbow has put that on the back burner for now. She's capable of hitting the ball hard and she's got a lot of shots. There's a lot of reasons for her to play and we're hopeful she'll have a good freshman year.
bc.net: Your back row with the libero and defensive specials again have some big shoes to fill this season.
MJ: We lost Kelsi Phillips to graduation and to expect someone without a lot of experience is again I think unfair. We've got a couple options there. Hannah Walker has done some good things in practice so far and has a chance to play a lot for us as either a libero or as a defensive specialist. She hits a very tough serve, maybe the toughest on the team so we're obviously going to see her playing some. Stephanie Ziegler may be our best passer on any given day so if Stephanie isn't playing in the front row you could certainly see her as a defensively specialist. She gives us a veteran kind of presence. She's got experience and I think early in the season that's important that you have players on the floor who aren't going to have jitters and know what we're doing. That's hopefully going to help us through the preseason.
Jordan Reifsteck and Madison Hardy are both very good defenders in their own right and I think they're going to find their way on to the court. Madison has a tough serve and Jordan is a great defender, one of the best on the team. Her serve receive is improving so I think we could see both at certain points.
bc.net: Just looking over the roster overall this is at least from a class standpoint a very young team. You mentioned Stephanie Ziegler as one of the veterans on the team. Who are some players that you're kind of looking to especially in the preseason to step up and fill that leadership role on the court and off the court in particular during the first couple of weekends?
MJ: Anybody that's been on the floor before you hope will step up and take control out there. Obviously Meredith, Steph, Desiree are all people we think can do that for us but whoever leads I'm fine with it. We want leaders. I don't care if they're newcomers or returners. We want leadership ability and if you've got that leadership ability go use it. We don't name team captains because sometimes you do that by seniority and who you hope will lead but that doesn't mean they're going to. I think we've got some players who get it that are going to do a good job for us.
bc.net: This opening weekend going to the Northern Illinois tournament. What are you looking for out of this weekend, what do you want to see from the team. Obviously aside from getting three wins out of the weekend, what would make this a successful weekend for you?
MJ: We want to win every match we play. If we don't I hope that the reason we lose isn't because we're not competing hard or because we're not making good decisions. If the reason we lose is skill related, we don't pass well enough, we don't block well enough, we make too many hitting errors, whatever the case may be then we've just gotta get in the gym and get better at it. At the end of the weekend because I know we're playing three good teams, I don't want to feel like we didn't compete. There will be times when it's not going very well, they [opponent] might score two or three points in a row. How we react to that adversity, how we bounce back from our mistakes, that's going to be something we're going to pay close attention to.