Uh oh, Matadors begin Big West play

Kerstin Gupilan

Martha Primera  After a disappointing 2008 Big West season, CSUN has high hopes for 2009.
Martha Primera After a disappointing 2008 Big West season, CSUN has high hopes for 2009.

The Cal State Northridge women’s volleyball team (4-8) will travel north this weekend as it kicks off Big West Conference play with matches against the Aggies of UC Davis (9-5) and the Pacific Tigers (10-1).

The Matadors are coming off of a split weekend, with a five-set loss to Fresno State (just days after a match against Loyola Marymount with the same result) balanced out by a three-game sweep over Portland.

“Fresno and LMU got away from us,” CSUN head coach Jeff Stork said.  “Davis and Pacific will be a challenge for us, but the girls have trained hard.”

First up, the Matadors will match up against Davis on Friday. Last season the Aggies swept CSUN in three sets in both of the teams’ meetings.

But the Aggies welcomed freshman outside hitter Allison Whitson this season; Whitson is currently leading the team in kills with 156 (.195) and has contributed 35 total blocks. Sophomore middle blocker Betsy Sedlak tops the Davis blocks list with 55, 11 of which she acquired solo.

Davis also brings back junior outside hitter Kayla Varney who has 141 (.134) kills this season. Varney also boasts 163 digs, ranking her second on the team just after senior libero Avreet Singh (197 digs to go with 13 aces). Another Aggie to watch is senior setter Carson Lowden, who has tallied 502 assists and 12 aces. The CSUN match will mark Davis’ first home game of the season.

Saturday, the Matadors will be faced with another tough opponent. The Tigers have only lost one match so far, and that was to No. 5 Florida. In their first meeting of 2008 the Matadors defeated the Tigers in four sets, but fell in just three sets to Pacific during the two teams’ second meeting.

“We’re in conference now, we’re 4-8 in non-conference play and I thought we had a tough non-conference schedule,” said Stork, when asked about Pacific’s 10-1 record. “The strength of the schedule is what’s important.”

Leading the pack for Pacific is a trio of hitters whose statistics are almost identical in the kills and digs department. Senior outside hitter Mallori Gibson leads the team with 133 kills (.297) and 23 aces, with junior outside hitter Svenja Engelhardt hot on Gibson’s heels with 130 kills (.275) and 18 aces.

Playing the supporting roles for the Tigers are senior setter Olivia Riley who has set 421 balls for kills, defensive specialist/setter Dancyne Kama with 168 digs and senior middle blocker Masha Vaysburg who leads in blocks with 33.

The Matadors have been practicing tirelessly since their loss against Fresno in preparation for the start of conference play.  They are still trying to build on strengthening their side-out and transition scoring.

Angela Hupp still leads the Matadors in kills, with Britney Graff and Brittany Williams stepping up into significant supporting roles.

“We have three to four players hitting in double digits right now which is really good,” Stork said. Last year we depended mostly on Angela.”

Still, with the uncertainty of injuries that CSUN has been plagued with this season, and the inconvenience of furloughs leaving the coaching staff sparse, the Matadors will have to work extra hard this weekend.

“We look at how we can eliminate errors and generate more offense,” Stork said.  “Our serve-block defense is really good and we’re scoring at a good rate, 45 percent … it starts with the first contact. First contact is important this weekend. But I’m still confident in scoring points.”