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Matadors Might Rise in Big Sky


NORTHRIDGE — Help is on the way at Cal State Northridge, and it's not necessarily in the form of Nancy Ma.

The women's volleyball team, left for dead last year when Ma suffered a knee injury in the middle of the season, will improve with her return to the court.

But another boost could come from a group of newcomers, including a recent addition from Germany.

Laura Szymanski, a 20-year-old freshman opposite hitter from Berlin, joined the Matadors last week after she qualified academically.

The 6-foot Szymanski and another freshman, 6-2 Amanda Duncan, a left-handed opposite hitter from Long Beach Wilson High, are on track for first-year success.

When the 6-foot Ma, a senior, is added to the mix, the team will sport an entirely different look than the one that lost 11 of 16 matches after Ma's injury.

Ma has been cleared to play by school athletic trainers, but will be held to limited action until the Big Sky Conference opener Sept. 17 at Eastern Washington.

"We need to protect her," said fifth-year Coach Lian Lu, who has compiled a 61-63 record at Northridge.

The Big Sky preseason coaches' poll, which was released three weeks ago and pegged Northridge to finish fourth among nine teams, suddenly seems outdated and inaccurate.

But Lu would rather assume the underdog role at Northridge, which opens the season Saturday against Boston College at the Loyola Chicago tournament.

"Even I picked my team to finish fourth because I didn't know how Nancy would be and we didn't have Laura in school at the time," Lu said.

"Now I'm confident our team will be good, but I don't want to speak out."

Sophomore outside hitter Kristin Sigel, selected the conference's outstanding freshman last season, remembers the team that was 14-15 and finished fifth in the Big Sky with a 6-10 mark a year ago.

"It was separate players playing the game," said Sigel, who broke the school's dig record with 496 last season. "Now, we're all playing the Northridge game."

Crystal Newquist and Angie Herrera are solid in the middle, but they are the only middle blockers on the roster with college experience.

"It makes me a little nervous," said Newquist, who led the team with 322 kills and 134 total blocks last season.

"We just have to be extra careful. No black cats in front of us or anything like that."

If worse comes to worst, a move to the middle could be in the future for the versatile Szymanski, who helped her German youth team win the Berlin state championship in 1994 and 1996.

Setting could be a tripwire for the Matadors, with freshman Laura Woiemberghe holding off Malena Zapata, a transfer from Pierce College, for the starting spot.

Neither setter has played at the major-college level, though coaches are optimistic the Matadors can repeat their 1996 feat of winning the Big Sky title.

"Honestly, team chemistry is really important, especially in women's sports," Newquist said. "Everybody has the same attitude, the same focus. Those are going to be the keys to hopefully winning Big Sky."

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