Strong out of the gate

Coming off a disappointing sweep suffered at the hands of Sacramento State in last year’s Big Sky Championship game, the volleyball team has regrouped for 2008 with a combination of young talent and returning firepower.

Coming off a disappointing sweep suffered at the hands of Sacramento State in last year’s Big Sky Championship game, the volleyball team has regrouped for 2008 with a combination of young talent and returning firepower.

The Vikings lost just three players from last year’s squad, including senior middle blocker Michelle Segun and libero Jackie Thomas.

However, the team returns junior Nique Fradella at setter, junior Marija Vojnovic at outside hitter and a plethora of talented middle blockers including 6-foot-3 sophomore Christie Hamilton and Erica Jepsen, a 6-foot junior.

The team also returns Lindsey Steele, who sat out last season with a knee injury. Steele leads the team in kills with 94 and is second in digs, with 126. Steele said that she is relieved to be back with the team and hopes to be at “100 percent game shape” soon.

“We have a lot of experience from last year,” said Fradella, a team captain. “We know we can all step up at different times.”

Last year Fradella led a potent offense that helped the team win the Big Sky regular season championship and the right to host the post-season tournament this year.

Now, the team is in an unfamiliar position: it has a target on its back. The Vikings were picked No. 1 in the coaches’ preseason poll, the first time they have received that nod since joining the Big Sky Conference in 1996.

Thus far, Portland State has shown no signs of slowing from last year’s pace and is sitting at 7-3, with losses to Oregon State, Washington and Idaho.

The Vikings finished non-conference play by hosting the Portland State Volleyball Showcase Sept. 11-14, coming through with a 3-1 record despite losing Hamilton to an ankle injury when the Vikings played the University of Portland to open the tourney.

Hamilton’s injury forced Vikings head coach Michael Seeman to platoon several players during the tournament, including redshirt freshman Tracy Vargas and junior outside hitter Jennifer Oney, with Jepsen up front.

The loss of a key cog in the middle hurt offensive production, Seeman said, but he added that the team expects Hamilton to return in time for the start of Big Sky play on Sept. 18.

“I thought we never really got our middles going,” Seeman said after his team squeaked by UP in five sets. “That’s going to be the key for us, getting the ball to the middle more consistently.”

Vargas got some of Hamilton’s minutes and was impressive at times, showing raw power and impressive blocking, but Seeman gave many of the important rotations to junior outside hitter Jennifer Oney, who is third in kills with 75.

Oney said she was pleased with how the team reacted to the early season adversity of losing Hamilton.”I think we came together quite well given that we haven’t run this rotation very often,” Oney said. “We definitely had to put ourselves in a different mindset.”

Oney said the team was relying on the leadership of its captains and added that she felt the weekend tournament would be beneficial in the long run.

“Preseason is going to happen. We’re going to have injuries,” she said. “But, we are 14 strong. We’re going to have to use everybody [at some point].”

After losing to Idaho Saturday, Seeman said the tournament highlighted some areas the team must improve on.

“I felt we didn’t take the big swings when we needed to,” Seeman said. “We didn’t get the production from our outsides that we needed.”

However, he was pleased with the 3-1 record, especially since the team was without Hamilton.

“We certainly learned a lot about ourselves,” he said. “We need continue to get the balls to the middle. Our defense needs to continue to improve. In addition, our blocking needs to improve.”

The Vikings take on Idaho State in Pocatello to kick off Big Sky competition Thursday evening.

Players to watch

Lindsey SteeleJuniorOutside hitter94 kills, 126 digsAfter missing all but one game last year, Steele returns as one of the team’s most versatile players. She leads the team in kills and has shown a willingness to sacrifice her body on defense.

Christie HamiltonSophomoreMiddle blocker41 kills, 12 total blocksHamilton has missed three games recently due to an ankle injury, and her return to action is eagerly awaited. She anchors the middle for the Vikings, providing an intimidating 6-foot-3 wall for opposing hitters to contend with. She is key to the Vikings defense.