Last year, when nobody expected anything, the Loyola Marymount University women's volleyball team got hot, won its first West Coast Athletic Conference title, reached the NCAA playoffs and knocked off UCLA.
Now the question for new head Coach George Yamashita is what to do for an encore for a team that went 24-8.
With 10 letter winners--including four starters--back, Yamashita has a pretty good idea.
"Skill-wise, we're ahead of last year," he said at a preseason press conference. "We're hoping to come out as one of the best defensive teams on the West Coast. We're doing just incredible things in practice. It's going to be hard for teams to put it down (spike) on us. We keep the ball alive and keep it going until the other team makes a mistake. If a team beats us, they will definitely earn it."
The Lions will get a quick test when they open the season with home matches Friday against Colorado State and Saturday against UC Santa Barbara.
The preconference schedule also includes appearances in tournaments at Cal State Fullerton, the University of Nebraska and in the National Invitation Volleyball Tournament at UCLA, where the Lions will face the Bruins in the opening round.
The biggest shoes to fill belong to graduated setter Andrea Fort, who was WCAC player of the year not only for her setting skills and conference-leading assists, but her fortitude as well.
Yamashita, who was the assistant to Coach Nancy Fortner last year, said initially his biggest fear was the loss of Fort's leadership. But after watching a few weeks of practice, Yamashita said he is confident "the lack of leadership . . . hasn't materialized. The seniors have done an amazing job in setting the tone."
Fortner left Loyola because her coaching position was never made full time. Yamashita is also in a part-time position, but he hopes to build on the foundation Fortner left and make women's volleyball one of the campus' glamour sports.
"I see this as a foot in the door," Yamashita said.
This year's team will be built around returning hitters Tiffany Miller, 5-11, and Leslie Wohlford, 5-8, on the outside and an unusual alignment with three middle blockers--5-11 Cathy Petrissans, 5-10 Lori Rodman and 6-foot Deana Block. All are seniors except Wohlford, a junior.
Petrissans, last year's instant offense off the bench, was an all-conference choice, leading the WCAC in hitting percentage. Wohlford, though the shortest of the front-line players, still led the team in kills.
Junior setter Seham Khalaf, Fort's understudy last year, is the one being asked to move into the lineup and provide the assists.
Yamashita said Khalaf--"Sam" to friends--"has got big shoes to fill but we've got two backup setters, Marette Larson and walk-on Anita Irwin, and (the trio) should do the job.
"Andrea (Fort) was not only a very skilled player but there was her leadership quality as well. But with our senior leadership it's just a matter of replacing her skills."
The WCAC is realigned this year, now having the same eight teams that compete in most other sports. Nevada-Reno and U. S. International University have dropped out in favor of WCAC regulars Portland and Gonzaga, making a league forecast something of a mystery.
However, Pepperdine, which returns its entire starting lineup, looks like the favorite, with Loyola the top competition and Santa Clara also strong.
Yamashita hopes to establish Loyola as a perennial contender. "We reached a certain level; we progressed and in general matured last year," Yamashita said. "The players and university started taking the program seriously.
"Now they come to practice expecting to be pushed and reaching for high goals. The university is starting to think in terms of an NCAA berth. (Athletic Director) Brian Quinn has pretty much told me that women's volleyball is the cornerstone of women's athletics. I'm excited."
Yamashita also hopes to start drawing crowds to Gersten Pavilion, where the players have traditionally performed before friends and family.
Last year's rousing season finale, with the Lions playing for the conference title against Pepperdine, drew a boisterous crowd of several hundred and an enthusiastic following cheered Loyola's playoff appearance at UCLA.
"We'd like to fill Gersten Pavilion. That's my long-range goal," Yamashita said. "We hope to do some promotion in the community and do some things to get them to come out. They should see a pretty exciting brand of volleyball."