Aug. 22, 2011
BERKELEY - In Part I of a preseason Q&A series with California volleyball head coach Rich Feller, he took us through the team overall. In Part II, it's time to focus on the returners. Though they lost two key student-athletes to graduation in Meagan Schmitt and AVCA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd, the 2011 Golden Bears return five starters and the libero from last year's NCAA finalist team. CalBears.com picked Rich Feller's brain about Elly Barrett as setter, if Tarah Murrey can duplicate her stellar 2010 season and how he sees the rest of the returners filling out the court. Check back later this week to read about the freshmen in the final installment of the three-part preseason Q&A!
CalBears.com: One of the big questions on everyone's mind is what is the team going to do without All-American and Player of the Year Carli Lloyd? Is that a lot of pressure for the setter heir apparent in Elly Barrett?
RF: There's no one who ever fills the shoes of someone like a Carli, who's player of the year, an All-American, took our team to two final fours. You don't fill those exact shoes. The next student-athlete in that role has to find her own niche. You find your own way to lead a team. As I said, the positive side is that Elly has been with our program for two years. She came to Cal knowing she would learn from Carli Lloyd and knowing that we had an all-American setter ahead of her. She came knowing, "This is my role, this is my plan." I think she took full advantage of that for two years. All of last year as the back-up, she was really, really in tune with the team and ran our second and scout teams. She has learned a ton - from Carli, the coaches and her teammates.
We have to remember back to her club days, her team won 17-open, and she was MVP of the tournament. There's some good pedigree there as well as the learning and experience that she's had for two years at Cal. It will be different for her and for our fans. I'm really thinking that it'll be as good as or better than last year. We've got an experienced crew of hitters to help Elly get through the transition period. We've got someone who isn't a rookie setter in her first year of college. I think having the combination of having the experienced team and her experience being on the bench coupled with the learning that she got in the past two years, and we're going to start where we left off and go up from there.
CalBears.com: With the departure of Carli, what kind of expectations does that lay on the other returning first-team All-American Tarah Murrey?
RF: I think the expectations are extremely high for Tarah - from us, from her and from the public. Going into last year, she had, by everyone's submission, a subpar sophomore year for someone who was destined to be a superstar. She blew that year out the water last season, and we never have to talk about those years again. She more than exceeded the public's expectations last year, but not ours or hers. Reproducing that kind of year or even a better one, is going to be just as hard as it was to go from sophomore year to junior year, but I fully expect her to work towards that goal. I think that she will rise to that challenge. People are talking about her as being the best player in the country, and I'm not going to disagree with that talk at all. At the same time, I don't want to put added pressure on her, but I don't think that's possible. I think she'll put that all on herself.
She knows she's got the team to back her up. She's got as good or better of a team this year as she had last year. With her counterpart, Adrienne Gehan, being the other outside hitter, will help. Last year, Adrienne was a freshman going in and hitting .300 in the NCAA Tournament. Now Tarah can count on even more support from the Adrienne and other hitters on the team. That will really loosen the defense for Tarah and give her more openings. I think the expectations are high, but I think we can manage them.
CalBears.com: Let's talk about the other fantastic returners. How's the rest of the court shaping up?
RF: There's going to be some positions up for grabs. We return our starting middles in Kat Brown and Shannon Hawari and starting right side in Correy Johnson. We put Correy back in her natural position in the spring, in the middle. It's really going to be the three of them competing for the two middle spots, and you have to throw in Lillian into that mix. We really have four really competent middle blockers, two that started for a finalist team last year and one that started at another position for a finalist team as well as a freshman that's coming in with high expectations. There's going to be a little competition there, and I think that's healthy. When we settle on a rotation, it might not last very long. For certain teams, there may be certain rotations that would work better so we'll be able to platoon a little bit, as they would say in other sports. I think it'll be an interesting competition. If two of them are better than Correy, then Correy may end up going back to the right side, and that creates another combination with Lindsey and Christina and Lauren. That competition, that depth, I think will be healthy for the quality of our team. I'm excited to see that. They're all in great shape. Kat and Shannon had great springs. Correy had a great spring in the middle and a great summer with the U.S. team. They're all ready to go, they've all been there and they know what it takes.
Lauren Loerch didn't get much playing time last year, but she's gotten stronger, she's gotten her game better. She played all spring and has a chance to compete for one of those pin positions. Adrienne is returning, I like to think of her as the big easy because she never seems to get rattled. She bumped out of that freshman season about halfway through last year and just started tearing it up. She's a huge reason why we were so successful last season because of her game and how it came on.
Robin is Robin. She's starting out as our starting libero, and had a great spring. She's got great experience now after a couple of years in the line-up. I think we're going to see great things from Robin. She's taking on a much bigger leadership role for she was must more vocal all spring. I think that's a good niche for her, also. Erin - who was on the court for us as a DS for us all year and in the final four - she's gotten more experience and more confidence in her passing. We might be able to rely on her a little more than last year. Her passing and nose for the ball is better than ever.
CalBears.com: Several of the student-athletes raved about your spring season. Run us through spring ball.
RF: We didn't have Kat Brown in there so it was really just Shannon and Correy in the middle, and they got a lot of reps. The spring was really focused on what do we need to do to get one more win next year? What do we need to do to get one step beyond? I just looked at my notes from fall 2010, and at the top were Pac-10 Championship and final four. I really wish I had put Pac-10 Championship and national championship because we accomplished both of our goals that I put on there. This year, you can be sure it's different. I think the spring was good because they realized how close they were to winning that national title. They also realized how few teams have been in that position. Now, there are only three teams that have been to three straight regional finals or final fours - Penn State, Texas and Cal. I think that experience helped motivated them with a purpose during spring ball.
CalBears.com: For the first time in 12 years, you will be without assistant coach and recruiting guru Chris Bigelow. But you bring in Jenn Carey, who has been with the staff and student-athletes for the past two seasons. What's the coaching dynamic like this fall?
RF: We tend to forget that Chris left because she's been gone since January. We'll miss Chris because she's a wise veteran of coaching. We'll miss her comments, sayings and her calming effect. She was definitely the calmest person on the bench. I don't know if Jenn or Sam or I can be as calm as Chris was. I may have to assign that to Jenn to keep me calm. The good thing is that we've had Jenn in the gym coaching since January. I think the adaptation has been good in that regard just because she's been around so much. She's really acclimated to student-athletes. The freshmen don't know any different so there are six players out of 15 that don't know any different. The other returning players have been in the gym with Jenn all spring, and she sat on the bench with us all season, taking stats. They're very used to her being on the bench and in the gym in the spring.