Aug. 1, 2006
BERKELEY, CALIF. - The 2006 California volleyball team believes it has what it takes be the best in school history.
A strong statement, but with five starters returning, including its top libero, Cal has all the ingredients to continue its NCAA postseason streak. Added on top of this already talented nucleus is a freshman class ranked third in the nation, so it is easy to see why Rich Feller is all smiles when talking about the prospects of this year's Golden Bears.
"We have a lot more experience than any other team I have coached at Cal," said Feller, who directed the Bears to a school-record fourth consecutive NCAA appearance last season. "We have starters returning in all the key positions, so we will have a chance to be as good, if not better, than we have ever been."
For Feller to believe this year's squad has a chance to be his best team ever is saying a lot, considering he led Cal to the NCAA round of 16 in 2003. But, the veteran coach features senior captains Samantha Carter and Jillian Davis, who were starters as freshmen when Cal advanced to the NCAA Regional in Honolulu, Hawaii. On top of the skills of setter Carter and libero Davis, the Bears showcase two-time All-Pac-10 performer Angie Pressey, 2005 Pac-10 All-Freshman selection Morgan Beck and last year's top blocker, Ellen Orchard.
Both Carter and Davis are school record-holders and were honorable mention All-Pac-10 selections in 2005. Carter is the school's all-time assist leader (4,327) after establishing a school-record for single-season assists (1,555) as a freshman in 2003. Last season, she tied a school-record with nine service aces versus Morgan State, and she earned all-tournament honors at the CenturyTel/Classic Honda Premier, the Golden Bear Invitational and the Circus Circus/Molten Invitational. Carter is first among current Pac-10 players with 89 career service aces.
Davis' accolades include setting a school record last season with 538 digs and earning tournament MVP honors when the Bears captured the CenturyTel/Classic Honda Premier in San Marcos, Texas. Her 1,262 career digs rank third on the Cal all-time list, and she is second in career digs among current Pac-10 players. Davis is the owner of the Bears' single-match dig record of 33, setting the mark against Stanford in 2004.
"We have two gems in Samantha and Jillian," said Feller. "They are obviously crucial players for us as the setter controls the offense, and the libero controls the defense. So, it makes sense that they are our team captains. They set the tone because, besides being talented, they are both extremely hard workers."
The most highly decorated Bear is the explosive Pressey, who despite being only 5-8, is still Cal's top outside hitter. She continues to be impressive in the Pac-10, arguably the best volleyball conference in the nation. Pressey joined Carter as an all-tournament selection in all three of the Bears' tournaments last season and was the Sept. 26 Pac-10 Player of the Week after leading Cal to its first victories ever over UCLA and USC in the same weekend. As a sophomore, Pressey topped the Bears with 446 kills (eighth in the conference with 4.13 kpg), while hitting .251 and finishing ninth in the Pac-10 with 4.79 points per game.
Two more talented players are 6-3 outside hitter Beck and 6-3 middle blocker Orchard. Beck came in and established herself as one of the conference's top young talents, earning Pac-10 All-Freshman honors after being second on the team with 380.0 points, 372 kills and 3.26 kills per game. Beck had some of her best matches against the nation's top competition, notching a career-high 19 kills against national champion Washington and 17 kills at Stanford.
As a sophomore, Orchard was the team's leading blocker, finishing sixth in the Pac-10 with 129 total blocks (1.26 bpg), while hitting .266. She also played well in the NCAA postseason, notching two solo blocks and seven blocks total against Valparaiso and hitting .353 against Wisconsin. Orchard had a career-high 10 total blocks (three solo) at national champion Washington as well. This was after coming off the bench to lead the Bears with 14 kills against Pacific in the 2004 NCAA Tournament as a freshman.
Cal returns five other players who will be vying for court time. Senior Natalie Smart is in contention for starting duties as a middle hitter and can play the right side. Left-handed sophomore Bryte Nielson can step in and help the Bears with her setting, serving and outside hitting, while sophomore Am'ra Solomon is a talented athlete who continues to hone her skills as an outside hitter. Junior defensive specialist Vivian Cheung provides Cal with depth in the back row, and sophomore Kat Reilly was battling for a spot as a middle hitter until she was curtailed by a knee injury during summer workouts.
Even with 10 players returning from last year's squad, the Cal coaching staff has put together another impressive recruiting effort that has made the nation take notice. According to PrepVolleyball.com, Cal trails only Penn State and Texas for the distinction of having the country's top freshman class. Included in this group is Cat Dailey, a 6-1 outside hitter from Sage Hill School in Newport Coast, Calif., where she was the CIF Southern Section Division IV Player of the Year, a member of the 2005 Junior National A2 Team and the nation's No. 17 top high school recruit by PrepVolleyball.com.
Joining the Bears from Zagreb, Croatia will be 6-3 outside hitter Hana Cutura, who has been a member of the Croatian Youth and Junior National Teams for several years and is considered one of the top young players in Europe. Cutura comes from an athletic family as her father, Zoran, is a former Olympic basketball star for Yugoslavia, and her mother, Gordana, a former member of the Croatian National Volleyball Team. Another outstanding athlete entering the Cal program will be Mindi Wiley, a 6-3 middle hitter from Sonoma Valley High School. Wiley, also a standout high jumper, was named Cal-Hi Junior Athlete of the Year in 2004, was an AAU Junior National All-American and was tabbed as the nation's No. 18 top high school recruit by PrepVolleyball.com.
During the spring signing period, Cal added Kristen Kathan, a 5-6 defensive specialist from Campolindo High School in Moraga; Carly Bouza, a 5-10 defensive specialist/outside hitter from Acalanes High School in Lafayette; and Jill Brunswick, a 5-7 defensive specialist from St. Margaret High School in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. Kathan, the 2005 Contra Costa Times and Cal-High Sports Player of the Year, was noted by PrepVolleyball.com for her athleticism, while Bouza and Brunswick will provide the Bears with depth in the back row.
"This freshman class will fit in nicely as we try to fill the spots left by the graduation of Jenna Brown, Alicia Powers and Alexis Kollias," said Feller. "A key to our success this season will be the development of our newcomers and their ability to mesh with our veterans. Our goal is to be consistent throughout the whole season, and then play even better during the second half of the Pac-10 schedule. That should prepare us well for whoever we might face in the NCAA Tournament."