Volleyball Ready to Continue Climb

By Sara Elcano, Assistant Athletics Communications Director

SALEM, ORE. -- The Willamette University volleyball team enters the 2010 season looking to build on the late success of the 2009 season. Last year's team won six of its last eight games to climb to an 11-13 overall record and 8-8 in the Northwest Conference to claim fifth place.

Returning to lead the way for the Bearcats is senior Molly Blankenship (OH, Spokane, WA/Spokane Falls CC). Blankenship was named Honorable Mention All-NWC after accumulating 236 kills and a team-high 25 serving aces last season. She recorded double-digit kills 13 times, including a season-high 22 kills against Whitman College on Oct. 17, 2009.

Head Coach Tom Shoji has steadily improved the team since his arrival in 2008. Shoji added six freshmen to his roster to increase the team total to 19 members. The team is young on paper but the ten sophomores on the roster earned valuable playing experience as freshmen last season.

There were four sophomores who started more than half of Willamette’s matches. Jaci Abeloe (Medford, OR/North Medford HS) registered 129 kills and will look to contribute again from the outside hitter and opposite positions.

Brigit Miller (Olympia, WA/Olympia HS) started in 23 of 24 matches at setter for the team. She recorded 865 assists, good for 9.51 assists per game.

Josephine Johnston (Florence, MT/Florence-Carlton HS) and Madisyn Leenstra (Bellingham, WA/Sehome HS) both return at the middle hitter position after starting in 15 matches each as freshmen.

Overall, Willamette increased its height with the addition of the 2010 freshman class. The team now boasts 11 players who are 5’11” or taller. That height, combined with depth at the setter and libero positions, will give Shoji more options to work with this season.

The team was picked to finish fifth in the NWC Preseason Coaches Poll. Pacific Lutheran University and the University of Puget Sound are early favorites in the battle for the 2010 NWC Championship, according to the preseason poll.

Willamette opens the season on Sept. 2 against Western Oregon University in Monmouth, Ore. The game is set to begin at 7 p.m. (PDT).

Following the WOU match, the Bearcats will participate in the Boxer Kickoff Volleyball Invitational in Forest Grove, Ore. and the California Lutheran Tournament in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Northwest Conference play begins on Sept. 17 at home against rival Linfield College.

Molly Blankenship earned Honorable Mention All-NWC in 2009.

Molly Blankenship earned Honorable Mention All-NWC in 2009.