The season that turned out so well for the Matadors certainly didn't start out that way.
With a roster made up largely of underclassmenn (six sophomores, four freshmen), CSUN was picked to finish eighth among nine teams in the Big West Preseason Coaches poll in August. The Matadors did have one returning senior in setter Sam Orlandini but she didn't open the season as the starter. Sophomore Sydney Gedryn, who came into the 2011 season with four previous collegiate starts, took over as the setter but had plenty of weapons to work with. Sophomore opposite Natalie Allen and fellow sophomore outside hitter Mahina Haina combined for 559 kills in 2010 and with the return of 2010 medical redshirt Britney Graff the Matadors had plenty of hitters. Add in true freshmen middles Casey Hinger and Sam Kaul and the leadership of juniors Monica McFarland and Cindy Ortiz and Northridge had the makings of a solid squad with excellent chemistry.
"Back in the spring I knew we were doing some things better than what we had done in past years," said 2011 Big West Coach of the Year Jeff Stork. "For the most part we had more like-minded people in the gym that had a common interest in performing at a high level as a team. The chemistry was a whole lot better too and I think that started the season in the right direction."
The 2011 season opened at the Utah Classic (Aug. 26-27) and although the Matadors dropped two of their three matches, there was optimism. CSUN was swept by both Utah and Northwestern before bouncing back to defeat Weber State in five. Haina pounded a career-high 28 kills in the win over Weber State and was named to the All-Tournament Team.
"We knew heading into the season that the first tournament of the season in Utah was going to be a tough one," said Stork. "Unfortunately some of our players didn't come back ready in the preseason so we had to play our way back into shape. To do that against some quality teams that first weekend, we got beat up pretty good."
Next it was off to the State Capitol (Sept. 2-3) where the Matadors swept through Marist, Fresno State and the host Sacramento State Hornets on their way to the Sacramento State Invitational title, their first of two tournament titles in 2011. Haina again had another solid performance and was named tournament MVP as well as Big West Player of the Week and the team was showing signs of what was to come in 2011.
"We controlled most of the teams we played in Sacramento so I thought something was happening which was a good thing for us," said Stork.
Following a home opening loss to No. 9 USC (Sept. 6), Northrige carried its momentum from the previous weekend into another title at the UNLV Invitational (Sept. 9-10). The Matadors defeated both Eastern Washington and UNLV in five but stumbled in four against Southern Utah. Despite the loss, Hinger was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player.
"We took a similar attitude into the UNLV tournament that we had in Sacramento, that we thought we could win the tournament," said Stork. "Although we were surprised a bit by Southern Utah it was another good tournament for us."
Losses on the road at No. 6 UCLA (Sept. 12) and at home to a tough BYU team that finished 21-9 did not diminish a solid non-conference season that ended with an even 6-6 record.
"We knew some good things were happening for us during the non-conference season," said Stork. "But we knew the Big West is a tough conference so were a little unsure about what would happen when we opened conference play. Obviously we didn't start out as well as we would have liked but I knew that the components were there and if we were going to finish well in the conference we had to fix a few things."
After winning on the road at UC Riverside (Sept. 24) in their Big West opener, the Matadors dropped four of their next five conference matches and were 2-4 heading into the second half of the Big West campaign. A home win over UC Irvine (Oct. 15) opened up a stretch where Northridge won five of its next six to propel themselves back into the conference race. The stretch of wins was punctuated by emphatic wins over UC Davis and Pacific on Nov. 4-5. Coming in trailing both teams in the standings, the Matadors put together arguably their most complete performance of the season on back-to-back nights to sweep both teams. Hinger was singled out as Big West Player of the Week after averaging 3.83 kills per set while hitting .526. She also averaged a team-high 1.83 blocks per set in the two wins.
"The players started to buy into some of the things we were trying to do and the confidence began to grow," said Stork. "Obviously the two wins at home over UC Davis and Pacific were probably the highlight of that stretch."
CSUN closed the season by winning three of its last four matches giving the Matadors eight wins in their final 11 matches. With a 9-7 conference record, Northridge claimed sole possession of third-place in the Big West, the highest finish for a Matador team since finished tied for second in 2003. With 16 wins overall, CSUN matched the 2003 and 2006 squads for second-most in Stork's 10 years at the helm.
"I always had a lot of confidence in this team," added Stork. "I'm not so sure the other coaches in the Big West did and certainly we may have surprised them but we didn't surprise ourselves.
If you look at what we did largely with freshmen and sophomores, along with a couple of juniors, the future is bright," said Stork. "We still have to compete, just because we were good as freshmen and sophomores doesn't mean we're going to be great as juniors and seniors. There is still a lot of work to be done, we're already planning for next season and we want to be better than we were this season. We think we have the personnel to do that, I think we're in a good place as a program right now."
Haina, a sophomore from Honolulu, Hawai'i, wound up leading the Matadors in kills (344) and kills per set (3.31) and was named honorable mention All-Big West for her efforts. Allen, a sophomore from Murrieta, Calif., ranked second in kills per set (2.57) and third in kills (247) while Hinger, a freshman from Fullerton, Calif., was second in kills (257) and third in kills per set (2.52). Allen and Hinger, along with Gedryn, were named first team All-Big West, the first time in 11 years in the conference that CSUN had as many as three players named to the first team.
McFarland and Ortiz, both spearheaded the Matadors' defensive effort as Ortiz posted 452 digs and McFarland had 272. Ortiz's total is good for fifth on the single-season Northridge list while McFarland is fast closing in on 1,000 digs in her Northridge career. Allen was also a stalwart on the defensive side as she posted a career season-high 316 digs while Graff (200) and Gedryn (164) also reached triple digits in digs for the season.
Kaul, a freshman from Canyon Country, Calif., started the final 21 matches alongside Hinger in the middle and contributed 110 kills while hitting .283 to go with 84 blocks. Fellow first-year players Mariah Counts, Kelcie Randazzo, along with sophomore Nicole Jarvis also made significant contributions during the 2011 season.
The 2011 season also marked the conclusion of the Matador careers of seniors Orlandini and Una Siljegovic. Orlandini ranks third in career assists at Cal State Northridge with 2,761 and also contributed 75 aces while appearing in 310 sets as a Matador. Siljegovic finished her senior season with 95 kills giving her 242 kills in her CSUN career.
- GO MATADORS -