Aug. 24, 2000
Not only will the Oklahoma volleyball team be entering a new millennium this season, but the Sooners will also be beginning a new era in program history. Leading the squad into the 21st century is newly hired Head Coach Kalani Mahi. Mahi and the rest of the coaching staff's challenge lies in the ability to turn a team around that is coming off its worst season in program annals.
Mahi will be working with a seasoned group of veterans, including five seniors, and combining them with a talented group of recruits. Mahi is satisfied to rely upon the familiarity and leadership of the returners to help carry the team during the new staff's inaugural season.
"As a new head coach stepping into a situation, it is nice to have a strong corps of leadership among the returning players," said Mahi.
According to Mahi, the 2000 recruiting class, which includes four freshmen and two sophomore transfers, features a strong group of individuals who will be able to make an immediate impact this season.
"These recruits are good student-athletes with strong family values that will add a wonderful dimension to this volleyball program," said Mahi. "Their tremendous athletic skills will also allow them to step up and contribute to this team right away."
Mahi immediately began familiarizing himself with the program and the returning players by implementing a spring training regimen upon his arrival in February. It allowed the head coach to evaluate the returning players on the squad.
"We got a good appreciation for each individual this spring and what each can bring to this team," said Mahi.
Mahi will bring to the program a detailed system of offense and defense which will utilize the efforts of each individual on the court. Offensively, Mahi plans to install a fast, up-tempo style of play that will help balance the court. The quick-attack system will use the middle blocker and outside hitters more effectively and force the opponent to prepare for attacks from multiple sides of the floor. Mahi also emphasizes a need for good ball control on both offense and defense to allow the system to work successfully.
Mahi explained his theory of this balanced-style offensive attack.
"When you're facing big blockers on the other side of the net, you've got to keep them moving laterally and keep the opponent guessing as to which side of the court the ball is coming."
On the defensive end, Mahi's main focus is on controlling the ball. Mahi will look for his front-line players to initiate the ball control by stopping the ball at the net with stuff-blocking tactics. Emphasis will be placed upon improving individual ball control with effective digs and defensive range. Effective ball control is also expected to aid in the transition from defense to offense.
The setter position is one of the most experienced and deep positions on the team this season. Returning is senior Carolyn Kittell, while transfers Jessica Barney (Arkansas State) and Lindsay Hoyt (Illinois State) will bring with them a season of collegiate setting experience.
A two-year starter, Kittell has climbed her way up the Sooner record books by dishing out more than 1,100 assists in each of her two seasons at OU. She currently sits in fourth place on the school's career assists list with 2,355. Mahi credits Kittell with being a very talented setter with exceptional reading skills and good control of the speed and the height of a set, he sees these skills fitting into his new system well.
"She has the ability to deliver a consistent set to any area of the court," Mahi said.
Both Barney and Hoyt give the team added depth at the setting position. Although Hoyt served primarily as a back-up setter last year at Illinois State, her good size and versatility will enable her to also see playing time as an outside hitter. Barney, the 1999 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year at Arkansas State, gives the team the added dimension of stepping into the game as a left-handed setter.
The returning outside hitting corps is slim, after suffering the loss of four position players from last year, and returns only one player who saw significant action at the position in 1999. Expected to start on the left side is senior Maria Holmgren, who is coming off of a season where she totalled 164 kills and averaged 2.08 kills a game.
Joining Holmgren on the floor will be a talented group of three freshmen who will gain immediate collegiate experience and challenge for playing time. Karli Maughan and Logan Pierce, both All-State selections from Colorado as seniors, landed more than 200 kills and defensively collected more than 200 digs in their final seasons and are described by Mahi as being outstanding athletically. Christina Barlow comes from a successful high school volleyball program at Christian Heritage Academy in Choctaw, Okla. She won three state titles and a runner-up finish in her four years as a letterwinner, and possesses solid technical skills. Barlow also has the ability to handle the ball well.
Also, senior defensive specialist Maxine Zubiaga and Hoyt will be given the opportunity to compete as outside hitters in addition to their primary passing and ball control duties.
The strength at the middle blocker position in 2000 will be provided by senior Cathy Cook, a Big 12 Conference honorable mention selection and conference Newcomer of the Year honoree in 1999. Cook established herself both in the conference and on the national scene last year as her team-leading .358 hitting percentage ranked 29th in the country and third in the league at the end of the season. Cook, along with setter Kittell, will be relied upon to trigger the Sooner offense this season.
"We are looking for Cathy to continue her success from last season," said Mahi. "She is in a position where she has a lot of ability to control our offense."
Mahi also adds that the team's new up-tempo, quick-attack offensive style should greatly complement Cook's strengths.
Also seeing time in the middle will be Holly McMillan and incoming freshman Alexia McWhinney. McMillan, the team's only fourth-year senior, is a very dynamic and explosive attacker who will become a more active part of the offense this season. McWhinney, who finished her prep career as Cypress Springs High School's all-time kills and solo blocks leader, will be training in the middle during her first collegiate season.
Senior Maxine Zubiaga, a two-time first team Academic All-Big 12 selection, and sophomore Elizabeth Newman will stabilize the Sooners' defensive efforts on the floor. Zubiaga will start for the Sooners in the back row and will be looked upon to lead the defensive effort. Zubiaga is coming off her most successful season at OU. She became a regular starter and played in all 30 matches, collecting 165 digs and averaging 1.57 a game.
Newman, used primarily as a setter last year, will contribute her ability to play solid defense and serve and pass well will allow her to play a more vital role on the floor this season.
Defense is expected to become a larger emphasis for all the players this season, according to Mahi.
"Our main focus on the defensive end will be to improve our individual defensive range and controlling the dig to the target area," explained Mahi.
The 2000 schedule will display a strong group of competition both in and out of the conference. The season begins with two season-opening tournaments, the Lamar Tournament and the Holiday Inn Classic at Montana State University, followed by the tough competition supplied by the Big 12 Conference schedule.
"The Lamar Tournament will be very competitive and supply us with a mixed level of competition," said Mahi. "It will be a very solid tournament for us to begin the season."
Following the trip to Lamar, the team will then travel to Bozeman, Mont., to compete in the Holiday Inn Classic, which does not have an opponent who had a losing record a year ago.
"The Holiday Inn Classic will serve as great competition to help us get ready for Big 12 competition," said Mahi.
As always, the Big 12 Conference presents a tough challenge to all league members. Regarded as one of the top three volleyball conferences in the country, Mahi anticipates that six schools in the conference will garner top-25 rankings during the year, with possibly three of those being top-10 teams. Mahi also views this tough competition as beneficial to the team's development throughout the year.
"The tough competition of the Big 12 is great because you want to go into every match knowing that you have to compete at a high level and maintain that focus constantly," said Mahi. "This also helps you down the stretch because when you reach postseason play, you know you've earned it."