NORTHRIDGE, Calif. - Cal State Northridge heads into the 2013 volleyball season long on experience and with a hunger to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2004.
Coming off a solid season in 2012 that produced 21 wins, the most by a Matador team since 1996, CSUN also won 12 Big West Conference matches which was good for third in a very competitive conference.
The Matadors welcome back 11 letterwinners and six starters from a season ago and have also added a quartet of talented newcomers. The following is a position by position breakdown of the Matadors who open the 2013 season Friday against Santa Clara at the Fresno State Bulldog Invitational.
Year in a year out, CSUN is among the top blocking teams in the Big West Conference and 2013 should be no exception. AVCA All-American Casey Hinger (Fullerton, Calif./Valencia HS) heads into her junior season ranked seventh in Matador rally scoring era history with 264 career blocks. She led the Big West in blocks per set in 2012 with an average of 1.34. Hinger and fellow junior Sam Kaul (Canyon Country, Calif./Canyon HS) have started in the middle for two seasons and work very well together.
"We're always trying to expand Casey's responsibilities and the scope in which she plays the game," said Stork. "She's been doing very well as a back row player and there is a high likelihood that she'll see some backcourt time this season. She's always done a lot of things very well, she attacks a variety of sets extremely well, has a good serve, is a tenacious defender and a very good blocker, we're just trying to expand on her opportunities to touch the ball."
Kaul finished third on the team in 2012 with 126 blocks (1.08 bps) while hitting .242 in 296 swings.
"Sam is more of a traditional middle," said Stork. "She's predominantly a net player but has an effective serve and has shown signs of being an adequate defender in the rotation that she does serve in. She's primarily in there to hit a quick set and stuff balls and she does that very well."
Sophomore Cieana Stinson (Woodland Hills, Calif./Taft HS), who can play a variety of positions, along with newcomers Rachel Diaz (King City, Calif./King City HS) and Stephanie Serna (Ontario, Calif./Capistrano Valley HS) will add depth to an already strong presence in the middle.
"We have a lot of depth in the middle this year, we've had Casey and Sam in the middle for two years now," said Stork. "CeCe is a very versatile player and as a middle she is a dominant attacker. She can be effective as a blocker but a majority of her effectiveness as a middle comes from the attacking side.
"Rachel and Stephanie are surprising us every day. They're both quick learners and are holding their own," added Stork. "We always knew both would be good players but they are both a little further along than where we thought they might be at this point."
OUTSIDE/RIGHT SIDE HITTERS
The position with the arguably the most experience is CSUN's group of outside and right side hitters. Fifth-year senior Britney Graff (Canyon Lake, Calif./Temescal Canyon HS), fourth-year senior Mahina Haina (Honolulu, Hawai'i/Iolani HS), fourth-year junior Natalie Allen (Murrieta, Calif./Murrieta Valley HS), Stinson and newcomer Julie Haake (Keller, Texas/Keller HS) give Stork a variety of options at both positions.
"Our hitters have a lot of experience as well," said Stork. "When you look down the list we do have an experienced group and we're expecting good things from them. A lot of these players have started together for two to three years and they continue to get better."
After earning All-Big West honors her first two seasons, Allen was limited to 10 matches due to injury in 2012. In Allen's 10 matches, she averaged 2.62 kills and 3.00 digs per set while hitting a robust .320 in 222 attacks.
"Having Natalie on the court is a huge plus," said Stork. "She's a very composed player with great all-around abilities. Whenever she touches the ball it tends to be a positive thing for us. She sees the game very well as an attacker and uses a variety of shots in a wide variety of situations to put the ball on the floor which is a huge plus."
Haina, who has led the Matadors in kills in each of the last two seasons, ranks sixth in CSUN rally scoring era history with 860 kills and is already within striking distance of the all-time top-10 in career kills. A two-time honorable mention All-Big West performer, she averaged a team-high 2.71 kills per set in 2012.
"Mahi is a quick, dynamic, explosive kind of player," said Stork. "We've worked very hard with her on her back row play and her defending has gotten much better. She is also working on her passing which would make her a solid six-rotation player."
With 305 kills last season (second on the team), Graff also moved into the rally scoring era top-10 in kills with 764 in her career. A solid two-way player, she has a career total of 735 digs which is just outside the top-10 heading into her final season.
"Britney is a very good ball-handling player," said Stork. "A very seasoned player, she is probably one of our best pin blockers on the left side. She has an effective serve and last year we scored the second-most points in her rotation. While she doesn't get a ton of aces she puts us in a great tactical position."
Stinson spent a majority of her time at opposite when Allen went down with an injury. She wound up her freshman season with 210 kills (2.04 kps) to go with 89 blocks (0.86 bps).
"CeCe, again, is also a dynamic attacker, she gets up really high and has a really good motion as an attacker. She can hit with a lot of range and her off-speed and tip execution is really quite high and is some ways astounding. She could play any of the front row positions for us."
Haake was listed among the top-250 recruits in the nation and was a first team All-District outside hitter at Keller High School as a senior. She was a second team selection as a junior in 2011 and was a two-time Academic All-District honoree. Haake also competes for the Tejas Volleyball Club based in North Richland Hills, Texas.
"Julie is a very good freshman," said Stork. "She is a very explosive, dynamic type of outside hitter and we're working hard at getting her passing a bit more steady. She has learned a lot in the two short weeks she's been here and we're expecting big things out of her."
The setting appears in good hands with senior Sydney Gedryn (San Jose, Calif./Willow Glen HS) and sophomore Steffi Miller (San Bruno, Calif./Aragon HS). Gedryn had a career-high 1,160 assists in 2012 giving her 2,357 assists in her CSUN career. She also further established herself as one of the Big West's top blockers. Miller saw spot duty as a true freshman appearing in only 10 sets but adds depth heading into her second season.
"As a senior, Syd's upside is unbelievable," said Stork. "She can be a dominant point-scoring setter nationally, not just within the conference. The system we run is ideal for her. she can do amazing things as a blocker, I believe she is the best right side blocker in our conference, she ranked among the top-10 in the conference all season which is usually reserved for middle blockers. She can score points as an attacker and is also a solid set distributer.
"Steffi is an extremely good leader," added Stork. "She's a very bright setter, her set location is very good so the depth of the setter position is very strong."
The lone position to lose a starter from 2012 is the back row where both seniors Cindy Ortiz and Monica McFarland manned the libero/defensive specialist spot for most of the last four years. Ortiz wrapped up her career with an all-time school record 1,456 digs while McFarland ranks fifth on the CSUN career list with 1,226.
Stork will look to redshirt junior Kelcie Randazzo (Whittier, Calif./La Serna HS/Western Carolina), sophomore Alia Casino (San Jose, Calif./St. Francis HS), redshirt sophomore Marissa Boyd (Granada Hills, Calif./Granada Hills HS) and newcomer Brooke Dawson (Valencia, Calif./Valencia HS/Pierce College) to fill the void left by Ortiz and McFarland.
"I think we have a lot of good defenders, unfortunately right now we don't have a pure passer," said Stork. "We've challenged this group to be mentally tough, come ready to play and make the improvements. We need results out of this position and primarily that has to do with passing, it's a challenge but I think this group is up to the task."
Randazzo, who redshirted in 2012, had 39 digs in a reserve role during the 2011 season. In 13 matches she also had three aces.
"Kelcie sees the game very well," said Stork. "We've asked her to do some things that has taken her out of her comfort zone. We've asked her to verbalize a whole lot more, to take charge a whole lot more and be all things back row, passing and defending."
Casino had the most digs of any of the back row returners last season with 150. She also finished third on the team with 20 aces (0.23 saps) in 25 matches. She had a season-high 16 digs in the Matadors' 3-1 win over UC Santa Barbara on Nov. 3.
"Alia is another player who sees and understands the game very well," said Stork. "She is working on becoming a better passer and we want to give her enough opportunities in practice to do that. She is a good defender and that is the area she added a lot of value last year. What could be her best skill is her serving, she was our best point scorer last year."
Boyd saw action in nine matches a season ago, compiling 19 digs and five assists.
"Marissa is doing a good job with her passing," said Stork. "We've asked her to work on her defensive positioning and she has been willing to work on that aspect of her game."
Dawson comes to the Matadors from Los Angeles Pierce College in nearby Woodland Hills. Her Brahmas team did not lose a match in two seasons compiling a 67-0 record.
"Brooke is used to winning and I think that's important," said Stork. "An important characteristic for an athlete is the expectation to win. In addition to bringing that to the team she is very focused and works very hard."
The Matadors get the 2013 season underway Friday, Aug. 30 as CSUN takes on Santa Clara in the second match of the Bulldog Invitational at Fresno State. The Matadors will also play Rice and the host Bulldogs on Saturday.
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