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July 21, 1997

1997 Volleyball Outlook

LUBBOCK, Texas - Texas Tech's 1996 volleyball season was filled many so many positive points. The Red Raiders won 25 games- the most for a Tech team since 1990 and the second consecutive 20-win season for head coach Jeff Nelson. Tech earned its second consecutive NCAA tournament berth. Tech doubled its attendance figures and recorded the best one-year attendance turnaround in NCAA Division I. Additionally, Tech was the first team to surpass the 20-win total on the season, the only Big XII school to defeat Nebraska and was ranked in both the AVCA/USA Today and Volleyball Magazine polls all season. Not bad for a season with a coach only in his second year of building a program.

Most schools and coaches would kill for a chance to win 20 games and compete in the NCAA volleyball tournament. But not Nelson. He's accustomed to 20-win seasons and NCAA tournament appearances. Now, he his focus is to take the Texas Tech program to a new level never before seen in Lubbock. That next level is national title contending status. And no time in the history of the Tech volleyball program has the future ever looked so promising.

Gone are three starting seniors including GTE Academic All-America and All-Big XII Conference middle blocker Jill Burness, academic standout Courtney Thames and recent pro volleyball signee Lacy Nye. Those three athletes accounted for much of the 1996 Red Raider offense and will be tough to replace. But Nelson has brought in eight athletic newcomers including two transfer athletes and six true freshmen.

"Obviously, we lost Jill and Lacy, who was a great personality and loved to play," Nelson said. "Our other senior Courtney Thames had been a four-year starter and defensively was as good as anybody. We lose some things there in terms of leadership and kids who were confident and solid in their positions, but what we've gained from that is kids who are more athletic, that have even more potential."

Eight letterwinners and three starters return from last year's 25-9 (12-8) team. Junior setter and co-captain Lisa Hilgers, a two year starter who led the Raiders in assists the past two years, is now comfortable in her role as team leader. She will lead the team from the all-important setter position. Junior co-captain Kristen Holmes, a former walk-on, will provide stability, outstanding leadership, desire and valuable experience from her outside hitter position.

Two seniors elected to return for their final season of eligibility in outside hitters Cristine Martin and Brande Brown. Because of an injury-shortened freshman season, Martin is petitioning to play with a fifth year of eligibility, while Brown has decided to return for her final year after graduating this past year.

Other returning players include junior middle blocker Sonia Moric, who provided strength off the bench last year, junior outside hitter Angela Cooper, who performed brilliantly in a starting role last year against Nebraska, junior defensive specialist Kim Breitbach, who provides the Raiders with solid and experienced back row skills, along with two athletic sophomore outside hitters in Heather Fife-Berres and Courtney Putnam. Nelson will look to the ultra-athletic Putnam, who established herself during the spring and on the trip to Italy, to provide offensive firepower. Two 1996 freshman redshirts, middle blocker Janelle Jones and outsider hitter Pam Osterfeld, will also join the mix and push for playing time. Jones, who was named last year's Most Improved Player, is the frontrunner to start at middle blocker.

Nelson also has the luxury of a top-flight recruiting class with six true freshmen including outside hitters Jodi Jones (Wichita Falls) and Heather Hughes (Scottsdale, Ariz.), middle blockers Emily Brengman (Chaska, Minn.), Ashley Frogge' (Collinsville, Okla.) and Kate Jury (Liberty, Mo.) along with setter Ebony Smith (Duncanville). Tech also added two transfers in left-handed outside hitters Natalie Rives (Samford) and Elizabeth Hamilton (South Carolina-Aiken). Rives will push heavily for playing time.

"I think our middle will be extremely strong again this year. Lisa (Hilgers) runs the middle as well as anybody and from anywhere on the court. I think we'll be solid with our middle blocking. Our biggest improvement will be our outside hitting adding one or two bigger players out there who can flat out hit over a block. Courtney Putnam will be a huge addition to the starting lineup and has the ability to control a match when she's hitting the ball where she needs to be successful. Our strength will be on offense where we're considerably bigger and our weakness will be ball control. That's what we're going to have to spend a lot of time on because we're a little less experienced."

Depthwise, Tech will extremely strong as Nelson will be able to play more players. "We've got 10-12 kids we can put on the court on not even think about it," Nelson said. "We can now go through an injury without missing a beat."

Texas Tech will again compete in the toughest volleyball conference in the country, the Big XII Conference, in its second year of competition. Proof of that dominance was the fact that six team earned NCAA Tournament berths, the most of any conference.

Change is apparent among the conference teams as three top conference schools who earned NCAA tournament berths last year have new coaches including Kansas State, Texas and Colorado. Oklahoma will be experienced with all but one starter returning, while Kansas State is extremely talented and Baylor could be the surprise of the conference. Kansas, Missouri and Iowa State have all added new recruits to bolster their programs. Nelson looks for 1996 conference champion Nebraska and Texas A&M to be the co-favorites in 1997.

"Top to bottom, it's going to be really tough," Nelson said. "I feel that we can play with any of the teams on any of the nights. We can go into every match expecting to but I don't think we can win every match. Nobody can go through the conference expecting to win every match. Top to bottom, the team that's compared, on their toes and ready will have the most success. You can't afford too many losses. One stable team that comes out ready to go will end up doing the best.

"Nebraska is clearly the favorite again but I think Texas A&M is right there as a co-favorite. Texas will be very good-they have an outstanding new head coach. They'll do good. Oklahoma has a lot of potential and is a very good team. Colorado should be strong again with a good coach and five starters back. Kansas State is extremely talented, has a new coach, but lost a couple good players but also recruited some good players. Baylor, whose coach is in her second year, looked much better than they have in the past and will be a surprise this year and Kansas will be considerably better."

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