While most of the Bearcat faithful had their eyes locked on this Thursday's 2005 regular season debut of the UC football team, some of UC's lesser known, and even lesser covered (except for Bearcatinsider.com), varsity athletic programs had their regular season "kickoff" this weekend.
Head Coach Reed Sunahara and his nationally respected University of Cincinnati volleyball program opened their regular season campaign this weekend (Sept. 2-3) by taking part in the Las Cruces Hilton Classic, hosted by New Mexico State. While senior Maria Pongonis did her part with 19 kills to help UC jump out to an early undefeated record with a win over Texas-Pan American (30-14, 30, 21, 30-25), an equally impressive individual performance against Tulsa was not enough to propel the Bearcats to a two-game winning streak, as her squad fell in four games to the now 4-1 Hurricanes 34-32, 22-30, 30-27, 30-25.
"Tulsa is an experienced team and we just made too many mental mistakes," said Sunahara. "We just need to put this one behind us and get ready for New Mexico State now."
Sunahara and his team will look to improve upon the sloppy play that led the Bearcats to a 1-1 start this season, and closeout their weekend stint in New Mexico with a win over the hosting Aggies Saturday afternoon.
However, for the Bearcats program this weekend is just the beginning of a season-long adventure that will hopefully see UC soar to knew heights. As with all Cincinnati athletic programs, the volleyball team is ready to embark on its maiden voyage into the Big East conference, a conference that has had its fair share of national success. The addition of UC and fellow former C-USA member and local rival Louisville, who ranked first in the season's first Big East poll, will add to a conference that has seen schools such as Notre Dame and Pittsburgh qualify themselves as top-notch national programs.
While UC has had little to know experience against Big East schools (outside the newly added Louisville, DePaul, Marquette, and South Florida), those in the know still expect the Bearcats to maintain a high level of play this season. In the first Big East poll of the 2005 season, UC found itself rated fourth amongst its new competitors, trailing only the ND, Pitt and the top-ranked U of L, who won both the regular season and Conference Tournament championships a year ago.
"Notre Dame and Pitt have always been top-teams and they've had a lot of NCAA experience, and then Louisville has also been a very successful program, so I am not disappointed in our ranking at all," said Sunahara. "Those are great teams, but so are we. We just need to prove that to the people in the Big East and throughout college volleyball. Most importantly we have to get on the court and prove it to ourselves."
Prognosticators have attempted to pin-down how well the virgin Bearcats will perform in their first season in the Big East, with the limited experience UC has had against their new conference foes. Though the UC program has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, here is a look at some of the historical Big East/UC match-ups and the last time the teams squared off against one another:
Georgetown............ 1990...... W, 3-1
Notre Dame............. 2002...... L, 0-3
Pittsburgh................. 1989...... L, 0-3
Rutgers..................... 1996...... W, 3-0
Syracuse................... 1990...... L, 0-3
Villanova................... 1991...... L, 1-3
West Virginia............ 1995...... W, 3-2
Several talented returnees to Sunahara's lineup will add to UC's efforts. UC will utilize that talents of senior Maria Pongonis, who ranked second on the squad in kills and third in digs, and junior Myanna Hellsten, who was selected as one of the 13 members of the Big East's preseason all-conference squad. As a sophomore, Hellsten averaged 2.43 kills and 1.35 blocks per game, while hitting a team-best .323. For her efforts, Hellsten earned third team All-Conference USA honors. Hellsten recorded a match-high six blocks in the loss to Tulsa.
In addition, UC will see the return of junior Noel Olson, who took over the starting position last season. While Olson will be faced with the responsibility of having to serve a leadership role on and off the court this season, nothing can match the pressure of having to replace the best that has ever played the position in a Cincinnati uniform. With the graduation of the program's all-time top setter Laura Lauder, Olson went on to record 50 or more assists in seven of 12 C-USA matches last season, including a career-high 66 at Southern Miss, and average over 12 assists per game for the season.
The other two returning members of the Bearcat squad that will look to make an impact this season will be sophomore Jenny Custer and redshirt freshman Jessie Nevitt, who are expected to have a season-long coming out party. Though putting up limited numbers last season (0.31 kills/ 1.29 digs per game), proved quickly that she will be ready to jump head first into the starting job at right side hitter. Custer recorded her first career double-double and career highs in kills (15) and digs (13), while also defending the net well with five blocks, matching a career-high. Nevitt, a redshirt middle blocker last season, is arguably one of the top-talents on the squad. Though lacking collegiate playing experience, Nevitt took full-advantage of this off-season by gaining immeasurable international experience during her trip to Argentina as part of a USA All-Star Team. Nevitt recorded at total of 20 kills in her first two collegiate outings, recording nine against UTPA and 11 against Tulsa.
"Jenny Custer, Maria Pongonis, Jessie Nevitt and Noel Olson all stood out and had good matches both offensively and defensively during the alumni game. We beat the Alumni 30-15, 30-15, 30-24, and I think the victory will help us be in game situations. I think we are close to being ready for the start of the pre-season."
Though UC does return a proven core of winners and top performers, the 2005 season will force the Bearcats to replace a large portion of last season's statistical output. The Bearcats saw graduation steal away the services of All-American Julie DuPont and four-year starters Leslie Newell and Rachel Torblaa. The graduating seniors combined for 63% of the team's kills, 30% of the digs and 53% of the blocks in 2004.
While the hopes of finding "replacements" for the newly departed Bearcats will be all but impossible, UC will hope to find suitable fill-ins with the services of freshman Jessica Elley, Lindsey Peterson, Jami Torok and Melissa Zenz. Though still unproven and a bit green, Sunahara has been impressed with the youngsters performance every since the alumni game. While no one has really stood out amongst the group, Sunahara knows that is likely to change during the season - possibly from a game-to-game basis.
" We do not have a set line-up and it will depend on who is playing well. That being said, we are a young team that will gain experience as the season goes on."
The players are not the only aspect of the volleyball team that is looking to become acclimated with UC and their new team. Coach Sunahara's staff includes new assistants Steve Aird and Chrissy Smith, a former player at UC.
"We are all growing and learning about each other daily," said Sunahara. "There is a lot to learn and a lot to experience, but we are moving in the right direction. As we grow closer as a team, a program, and a family off the court, we will see our comfort level with one another grow on the court come game time."
UC will hit the road again next weekend for yet another road tournament in Honolulu, Hawaii, before the Bearcats return to Cincinnati to open-up the home portion of their 2005 season with the Vernon Manor Bearcat Invitational (8/15-16), where they have enjoyed a strong home court advantage since the opening of Fifth Third Arena in 1989. In the 16 years the building has been in existence, the Bearcats have posted a 126-52 (.708) record at home, with 25 of those losses coming in a three-year span from 1991-93.