OREM — A year removed from winning his first Great West Conference title and a school record 23 matches, Utah Valley University women's volleyball head coach Sam Atoa is looking to build on his team's successes in 2012.
"We were really proud of our season last year and we are striving to win the conference again as well as the conference tournament this season," said Atoa, who is entering his 14th year at the helm in Orem.
This season Atoa, the 2011 Great West Coach of the Year, welcomes back 10 letterwinners, including two first team all-conference players in senior middle blocker Erica Nish and the newly married junior setter Brookelyn Hall (formerly Campbell). Hall is also the conference's reigning setter of the year.
The other returning letterwinners for UVU are junior outside hitter/middle blocker Katie Fritzler; sophomores Jaramey Barney (middle blocker), Erin Jolley (defensive specialist/outside hitter), Kalani Norris (outside hitter), McKenna Tait (outside hitter/defensive specialist), Cassie Wahlin (right side); and redshirt freshman Kaysie Taylor (outside hitter/right side).
"We are a young team that lost a lot of experience from last year; however, I am encouraged with the young talent that we have," Atoa said. "I'm also looking forward to integrating our newcomers with our returners. We have a lot of different options that we will look at (referring to this years lineup) and questions that need to be answered but we have a talented group of girls with endless possibilities.
"Besides our returners, we have five freshmen coming in and I'm looking forward to seeing what they will be able to do when we get them out on the court. We're hoping that they will all be ready for the challenge of playing at this level when the time comes."
Of the newcomers, Atoa is planning on redshirting libero/defensive specialist Emily Mendenhall (Cottonwood Heights, Utah/Brighton HS) and Rachel Steele (Orem, Utah/Mountain View HS) this season, but he is expecting big things from outside hitter Bailey Farris (Morgan, Utah/Morgan HS), Lauren Stringham (Kaysville, Utah/Davis HS) and Ali White (Cary, N.C./Apex HS).
"I feel like Baily, Lauren and Ali will push all of the returning kids that we have right now and that Emily and Rachel will really help us in practice," Atoa said. "They all have the talent and the capability to be able to get on the court right now and make an immediate impact for us."
The Wolverines will be tested early this season, as they will play 10 of their first 11 contests away from home. They will begin the season this weekend in Tucson, Ariz., at the Wildcat Classic and will take on Cal State Northridge and Evansville on Friday at 1:30 p.m. and 5:30, respectively, and host Arizona Saturday at 8 p.m. (all times in Mountain Daylight Time). Live stats will be available for all three matches by visiting WolverineGreen.com or ArizonaWildcats.com.
Following this weekend, UVU will round out the month of August with a match in Salt Lake City against the University of Utah on Aug. 28. The Wolverines will then face another in-state foe the following match, when they welcome Weber State to Orem on Sept. 4.
Utah Valley will also take part in the Fresno State Classic at Fresno State, the Utah Classic at Utah and the Roadrunner Classic at CSU Bakersfield besides playing single matches at Southern Utah and UNLV in September.
UVU will begin its eight-match Great West Conference season Oct. 4 in Edinburg, Texas against Texas-Pan American. The Wolverines will also host five home contests in the month of October in a two-week span from Oct. 13 to Oct. 27.
"We have very few home matches this season which isn't ideal but last year the girls were spoiled and next year we are hoping to kind of duplicate the home schedule that we had last season," said Atoa when talking about his 2012 schedule. "You never really know how things will go on the road with all the challenges that come into play but we are hoping that can be successful throughout the season."
The Wolverines will then host the 2012 Great West Conference Championships for the first time on Nov. 16-17. UVU closes its season by heading five miles east to take on BYU on Nov. 20.
"It will be nice to be able to host the Great West Tournament in front of our fans this season and that is something we wish we could do every year," Atoa added. "We are looking forward to be playing at home for that and we expect to have the kind of year that the tournament will be ours to win."
James Warnick is an assistant sports information director at Utah Valley University. For more information about Wolverine athletics, visit www.WolverineGreen.com