PALATINE HILL -- What was a program-changing class entering 2015 is now a year wiser and ready to lead the Lewis & Clark Pioneers into the 2016 volleyball season, which begins on Sept. 2-3 in Colorado.
Seven sophomores return for the Pioneers, including All-Northwest Conference Second-Team selection Julia Somers. Last season, Lewis & Clark finished fourth in the league standings - its highest spot since 2011 - and had the NWC's Libero of the Year, returning senior Alexe Navarro. Along with Somers, Casey Myszkowski, Kortney Meyer and Emma Contreras will be key pieces from the sophomore class along the Pios' front row, while Mikayla Lopez returns as the team's primary setter. Classmate Sam Yorke will compliment Lopez as graduated senior Emily Drake did last year and Annika San Nicolas is the group's lone returning defensive specialist.
"The team make-up is pretty young still," said head coach Stacie Matz-Gordon, who is beginning her fourth season leading the program. "We're pretty overloaded in our sophomore and freshman classes, but the maturity these girls bring from playing in high-caliber clubs and our sophomores getting a lot of time on the court last year is bringing a lot of strength."
Along with Navarro, Matz-Gordon is excited about the leadership senior Bridgette Henningsen brings the team.
"She has stepped up in so many capacities and is an absolute asset to us in the team aspect," said Matz-Gordon. "She is one of the hardest workers and is constantly willing to get better and collaborate with everyone on the team.
"The leadership from our two seniors has been critical in shaping the way that our preseason has landed."
Navarro earned the NWC Libero of the Year after rewriting Lewis & Clark's all-time career digs record last season. A more vocal leader through the fall so far, she'll enter the 2016 season with over 1,500 career digs.
Void of a returning junior, the Pioneers added one as part of a pair of transfers. Junior Bailee Cragun is a versatile front row player from Clark College in Vancouver, Wash. Matz-Gordon says Cragun is a strong blocker who has embraced the system and is learning quickly through the early part of fall practice. Anneka Banda is a transfer sophomore from California and will provide additional depth and maturity to the front row.
Much like last year, the freshman class is expected to make an immediate impact. Last season, four freshmen were among the top six that played in the most sets for the Pios. Karli Uwaine, Riley Moeder, Tyra Kong and Victoria Hernandez are defensive additions. Uwaine is a steady player from Honolulu, Hawaii who has progressed in the system so far. Moeder comes from California and will be asked to set after playing primarily as a defensive specialist before coming to Lewis & Clark. From Kaneohe, Hawaii, Kong brings a high volleyball IQ and has progressed quickly in camp. In a game of momentum like volleyball, Hernandez's energy will affect the team positively. The Graham, Wash.-native has been a "come-early, stay-late" addition to the team, says Matz-Gordon.
Along the front row, Shae Diaz (Hacienda Heights, Calif.), Rebecca Lee (Santa Cruz, Calif.) and Riley Kulfan (Bainbridge Island, Wash.) were added to the team. While an ACL injury will limit Diaz's impact in her first year after she was expected to immediately contribute. Despite the injury, Matz-Gordon believes she'll be a valuable off-the-floor team member as she recovers. Like Cragun, Lee provides versatility across the front row with great athleticism and jumping ability. Kulfan has been engaged in learning the system throughout the fall and provides added depth this season.
Matz-Gordon explains that the team has seen tremendous growth through Lewis & Clark's strength and conditioning program, Pioneer Power, which is led by head strength and conditioning coach Angela Dendas-Pleasant.
"In the spring, they were faster and dynamic and jumping higher, and they told us that they felt like they were. We had to tell them that it was real," said Matz-Gordon. "They've been absolutely committed to getting better through Pioneer Power. It is so impactful especially since our game is so explosive and fast"
Myszkowski and Meyer played virtually the entire season last year and will likely do so again. Myszkowski is a pin-to-pin blocker who is expected to have a bigger leadership role this season, while Meyer established herself as a force in the middle throughout the NWC in 2015. Similarly to Myszkowski, Meyer will be looked upon for leadership and help the younger players better learn the team's system. Contreras is another versatile member of the front row, allowing the coaches to use her in a variety of ways. In fall camp, she has been a tremendous ambassador for the program and demonstrates a desire to see the team be successful, says Matz-Gordon.
Somers has a deeper understanding of the game and system entering this season after nearly posting 300 kills a year ago. Matz-Gordon says Somers has an increased fire to be great this season, which has really excited the coaching staff.
Lopez and Yorke will handle primary setting duties this season. Lopez had 443 assists last year and is expected to be even stronger this year. Drake added another 299 assists, which will now be Yorke's responsibility, who has proven to be a natural leader and hard worker in the fall.
San Nicolas put in tremendous effort during the offseason, which has added to her already strong understanding of the game. She's expected to be a mainstay at the defensive specialist position.
Lewis & Clark's season includes two non-conference tournaments. Following the games at Colorado College the first weekend of September, the Pioneers go to Texas Lutheran for games against Schreiner, Hardin-Simmons, Howard Payne and the host over the following Friday and Saturday.
After NWC play starts in Tacoma, Wash. with games against Puget Sound and Pacific Lutheran, Lewis & Clark plays seven of its next eight conference games at home.
Senior Night will be part of Homecoming and Family Weekend when Willamette visits on Oct. 29.