USU volleyball: Aggies enter the MW with new teams and some familiar ones from the WAC

By Doug Hoffman

For the Deseret News

Published: Wednesday, Aug. 28 2013 11:23 a.m. MDT

Last season, Utah State volleyball was in the same conference from the previous year, but with a different look featuring half the league being new. This season, Utah State is entering a new conference with a somewhat familiar look, as the Aggies are entering their first season in the Mountain West Conference after eight seasons in the Western Athletic Conference. Of the other 10 teams in the MW, four were fellow WAC foes in the last three seasons.

“It’s just an unknown going into this new conference. We just don’t know. We don’t know much about the travel yet,” DuBose said. “We know the top teams — San Diego State, New Mexico, Colorado State — we know they’re going to be good. We’re familiar with San José State, Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State, because of previous conference affiliations. We just don’t know much about the guys in the middle. I don’t know much about UNLV or Air Force. I’m going to learn. We just don’t know much yet because we haven’t had any film on them, and that’s a concern.”

What won’t be a concern for DuBose is returning success, as USU is coming off a 21-9 overall season, with a 15-3 league record. Utah State won its first-ever WAC regular-season title in 2012 to go with its 2010 WAC Tournament Championship in its eighth and final season in the league. Another area that won’t be a concern is returning talent as DuBose and USU have four starters plus the libero back, and all four returning starters were all-WAC honorees a year ago.

Headlining the Aggies’ returners are junior setter Paige Neves (Otto, Wyo.) and junior outside hitter Rachel Orr (Thatcher, Ariz.), who earned first-team all-WAC honors last season.

USU also has two second-team all-WAC honorees returning in junior middle blocker Kaitlyn VanHoff (Draper, Utah) and sophomore Elle Brainard (Saratoga Springs, Utah). In addition to second-team all-WAC honors a year ago, Brainard was the WAC Freshman of the Year and was also on the all-freshman team. After excelling at middle blocker last season, Brainard is shifting to opposite side hitter this season.

“We really expect a big season out of Paige Neves. She’s a returning letterman, having started since she was a freshman. She’s really gotten comfortable with running the offense we want to run at the speed we want to run it," DuBose said. "We expect a big season out of Elle as well. She had a nice freshman season in the middle and had never played middle before. We recruited her for the right side, so it will be nice to get her back in her more comfortable position. Rachel Orr is a nice outside hitter. She’s a multi-sport athlete and an all-conference high jumper.”

In addition to the four starters, USU also returns its libero from last season in junior Ashlan Rogers-Court (Highland, Utah).

Adding to the mix are senior middle blocker Alyssa Everett (Perry, Utah), who returns to action after redshirting last season with a knee injury.

“We think we’re going to be pretty good overall. We’re returning a nice core group of kids," DuBose said. "We’re bringing a kid off an ACL injury in Alyssa Everett who didn’t play last year. I think we have a chance to be okay. I don’t know much about the Mountain West other than that it’s a good conference. I haven’t analyzed them enough. I’ve watched a few matches here and there, but I’ve been more worried about us than our opponents so far.”

One worry for DuBose this season is replacing departed seniors Shay Sorenson and Josselyn White, who earned first-team all-WAC honors last season.

“Replacing them is hard to do. We’ll miss those guys, both four-year starters with lots of experience. You just hope that the kids who are behind them do what they need to do to be prepared," DuBose said. "As far as looking to someone, Rachel Orr comes to mind because she plays that position. We’re moving Elle over to the right side, her more natural position. Those guys will be able to step up the challenge. They stayed here all summer working out, so we’re happy about that. That second outside hitter spot is kind of up for grabs now. We’ll just have to see what happens in fall camp."

USU also returns 51.9 percent of its kills (717/1,382), 54.1 percent of its points (996.5/1,843.5), 36.4 percent of its service aces (47/129), 49.9 percent of its digs (805/1,614), 69.8 percent of its blocks (436/629) and 91.9 percent of its assists (1,175/1,279) from the 2012 season.

Utah State was the ninth-best team in the NCAA in blocking (3.0) in 2012. Individually, Brainard ranked 20th in the country in blocking (1.41) last season, while VanHoff ranked 30th in the nation (1.33). In 2011, USU ranked 10th in the NCAA in blocking, an area of the team that excites DuBose.

“It’s exciting. Teams have to attend to our block," DuBose said. "They have to know they’re going to get blocked at some point and we are good at that. We’re good at that school. They have to be aware of who we are and where our blockers are. You have to kind of understand what we’re trying to do. I think it’s a distraction for some teams."

In addition to leading the WAC in blocking (3.0) last season, USU was also first in the league in opponent hitting percentage (.158), while also ranking fourth in service aces (1.16), fifth in hitting percentage (.211), sixth in digs (14.54), seventh in assists (11.52) and seventh in kills (12.45).

In the conference individual rankings, Brainard was third in the WAC in blocking (1.41), while VanHoff was fourth (1.33). Brainard was also ninth in hitting percentage (.291). Neves was third in the conference in assists (10.16), while Rogers-Court was sixth in digs (3.72) and Orr was ninth in the league in kills (2.96).

Everett finished the 2011 season second in the WAC in blocks at 1.27 per set and is expected to return to form this season as a senior.

Besides averages, several Aggies are closing in on some USU career records list. Neves enters her junior season at No. 8 on USU’s career assists list with 1,971, needing just 29 more to become the eighth player in USU history to reach the 2,000-assist plateau.

VanHoff begins her junior campaign with 251 block assists, needing seven more to crack into the USU top-10 career list, as well as with 265 total career blocks, needing 14 more to break into the Aggies’ top-10 career list.

Rogers-Court enters her junior season with 700 career total digs, needing 81 more to crack into USU top-10 career digs list. With 300 more digs, Rogers-Court would become just the fifth player in Aggie history to reach the 1,000-career digs plateau.

While watching the veteran players continue to increase their numbers, DuBose hopes to see several newcomers contribute right away and start their Aggie careers with big numbers. USU’s roster features a good-sized number of talented, well-decorated freshmen with seven on the ledger in 2013. The seven-player freshmen class is made up of outside hitter Maddie Day (North Logan, Utah), opposite side hitter Kayla DeCoursey (Farmington, Utah), libero Hannah Gleason (Las Flores, Calif.), outside hitter Kaylie Kamalu (Kaysville, Utah), middle blocker Carly Lenzen (Cave Creek, Ariz.), setter Erica Moscoso (Mission Viejo, Calif.) and middle blocker Hannah Smith (Flemming Island, Fla.).

“We expect all of them to raise the level of play in our gym, that’s really important. We think some players that are going to be really fun to watch are Hannah Gleason; she’s a fun little spark plug kind of kid. Kaylie Kamalu will be someone people like to watch. She’s dynamic and athletic. Carly Lenzen is just a nice steady kid,” DuBose said. “All the kids we added upgraded us, so we’re really excited about that. At the end of the day, that’s the big deal, can we compete everyone we practice? I think these guys allow us to do that.”

While also expecting fans to be impressed with the newcomers, DuBose singled out Brainard as one to watch as a surprise this season, as she shifts from middle blocker to opposite side hitter position.

“I think Elle pops into my mind as the biggest surprise among the returners, only because we’re changing her position," DuBose said. "We took an all-conference middle blocker and moved her to the right side. It’s the position we recruited her in. She plays that position by default and obviously did a really nice job of it. We anticipate people to kind of attend to her. She’s new to the position, but she’s experienced it, but no one here has seen her play it.”

Fans will have to wait to see Brainard and the rest of the Aggies play at home, as they open the 2013 season with their first 10 matches away from home.

“The schedule is going to be a challenge. Integrating seven new kids with eight veterans is a particular challenge for us, and usually one of the hardest parts," DuBose said. "I like our schedule. Our non-conference schedule is going to push us. It’s going to make us better for conference play which is what really matters.”

USU tips off the season at the University of Utah tournament, facing host and in-state foe Utah in the opening match, while also facing Northern Iowa and Fairfield. The next weekend, the Aggies play at the University of Portland tournament, where they’ll face host Portland, along with Wichita State and Pacific. After a mid-week match-up with in-state foe Weber State, USU plays at a tournament at Duke University, taking on Duke, South Carolina and Liberty.

“We’re going to play Wichita State who made it to the Sweet 16 last year. Liberty is picked to win their conference, and Utah of course is tough in the PAC 12," DuBose said. "I think it’s a nice blend of teams. Playing at Duke is going to be fun. They’ve always been a nice team. I think it’s going to really challenge us to be a lot better as we start conference play. We don’t have as many weeks, we have three instead of four to play, so we’ll have to jump into conference play pretty quick here.”

Conference play and the home opener occur in the same match when USU hosts Boise State on Sept. 18, in the first of the Aggies’ 10 league home matches to go with 10 road conference contests.

“I’m excited about the travel in the Mountain West. It’s going to be not quite as exhausting. I’m looking forward to going to Colorado State, who’s always been a great team and a wonderful environment to play in. I did it years ago when I was at New Mexico,” DuBose said. “San Diego State is good, New Mexico is good. Top to bottom, it’s a real nice volleyball league.”

While the competition and travel within the new league is exciting for DuBose and the Aggies, he also has some unknowns with the new conference.

“I don’t know the league that well. I’m not that experienced with who they are, I only know the reputation the team gets,” DuBose said. “That will be the thing that’s daunting.”

DuBose will have familiar, good company with him at the table in his coaching staff, which returns in tact from a year ago in assistants Jeremiah Larsen and Taubi Neves. DuBose also added former Northern Arizona head coach Craig Choate to his staff as a volunteer assistant, who DuBose has had a long-standing friendship with over the years.

“Our coaching staff has always been a strong point of ours. Adding Craig has increased that dynamic," DuBose said. "He has 25 years of being a head coach, so he brings a different perspective and point of view which will only benefit our athletes and our staff. He’s made a great staff better.”

According to DuBose, the coaching staff will have a talented, fun group of volleyball players and hopes the fans come out and enjoy watching the Aggies.

“We’re a fun team. We’re going to do some exciting stuff,” DuBose said. “We’re going to block some balls, we’re going to dig some balls, we’re going to hit some balls. We have some fun kids to watch.”

Doug Hoffman is the assistant athletic director for Utah State University Athletic Media Relations.

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