A year ago, Jennifer Petrie looked around the San Diego gym and saw a sea of fresh faces as the veteran coach indoctrinated seven freshmen into the program.
“It’s a super exciting year,” Petrie said, “mostly because we’ve only added two new faces to our squad.”
Despite all that youth in 2018, the Toreros (18-13 overall, 13-5 WCC) beat Cal Poly and then USC (finally after seven previous NCAA defeats) before losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament. San Diego finished No. 20 in the final AVCA poll and are 21st in the 2019 preseason ranking.
This year, the Toreros’ experience gives them plenty of options, Petrie said.
“Each position has very stiff competition. We have the numbers for each position where they have to be on, they have to bring their ‘A’ game in order to be on the court,” Petrie said. “In the past, we’ve had a starting six and then we had some role players. Now that starting six is very contested, so everybody has to raise the bar, raise their potential to see who can get into that starting six.”
USD has three strong outsides in junior Roxie Wiblin (who led USD with 308 kills, 2.75/set), sophomore Katie Lukes (229 kills, 2.44/set), and senior Thana Fayad, who is healthy after she played just one set last season after missing all of 2017. But as a freshman she had 180 kills, 111 digs and 28 blocks.
“We have three great outsides between Thana, and Roxie and Katie Lukes, that is an absolute dogfight there,” Petrie said. “Same with our libero spot.”
The list includes Camryn Tastad, a sophomore transfer from Oregon, sophomore Annie Benbow, and seniors Payton Douglass and Megan Priest.
“They’re duking it out right now,” Petrie said.
She said there are similar battles at setter and right side, “so this year we’re going to be able to take people off the bench and not skip a beat.”
One of those setters, senior Anna Newsome, who split the job last year with sophomore Laura Madill, is optimistic about 2019.
“We play for the people that played here before,” Newsome said. “We look at the banners and see who helped fill the banner, we think about the people that played here before us, we work for them, and for Jen, who has been here over 20 years, so we focus on not letting down the people that have built the program.”
That includes three key players gone from last year’s team: Middle Addie Picha (238 kills, team-high 166 kills, 42 solo), outside Lauren Fuller (216 kills), and middle Kaity Edwards.
Wiblin, a 6-foot-2 product of Berkeley, Calif., spent time in the USA national-team gym this summer and recognizes this is a big season for her.
“I feel like I’ve always had a lead-by-example mentality and this year, it’s more of leading by being a good teammate,” Wiblin said. “Now that I’m older and have more experience, it’s nice to have a little more impact on the team.”
Newsome, who is from Barcelona, acknowledged Wiblin’s leadership role.
“She leads by example. She’s not vocal like Addie, and that’s important. Words mean nothing if you can’t prove that you can lead the team, so she’s really good at leading by example.”
Wiblin said her time with the USA program was invaluable.
“Getting to watch the national team play, and seeing them as human beings, and not as these volleyball gods, seeing the best outside hitters in the world getting stuff blocked, it’s nice to know that if I get stuffed, it’s not because I’m bad, it’s because that’s the sport,” she said.
“Learning from Karch (Kiraly), he wants good players, good teammates, he wants good hearts, good competitors. Everyone in that gym is working their butt off at all times. I’m trying to bring that mentality back to this gym.”
Lukes, from San Clemente, Calif., made a quantum leap from her freshman year to last season.
“Katie Lukes is playing outstanding right now,” Petrie said last week. “We’re only eight days in, so anything can change, but she’s very confident. She’s been playing six rotations, so her game has really developed.”
Last year Newsome led with 6.3 assists/set and had 15 aces.
“Anna? She’s amazing,” Luke said. “She works so hard, she will fix any set for you. She’s work extra for you, she tries for everything, she will run the court and set it back to the five, and everyone’s amazed. She’s crazy. She’s awesome.”
Petrie admires Newsome’s confidence.
“She’s been a great leader, she’s very composed, she’s running an excellent offense, and so I’m really thrilled with the way she’s playing right now,” Petrie said.
“It’s giving me flashbacks to Kristen Gengenbacher in her senior year (in 2017), when you get to that level when you’re a senior, and when you don’t have to worry as much about your own game, you can focus on the team’s performance,” Petrie said.
“She’s at that point, so I’m excited for her this year.”
A side benefit of returning 13 letter-winners is that the team culture and chemistry from last year is largely intact, Lukes said.
“We’re really close. Honestly, even with the two new players, I already feel like they’ve been a part of the team for a couple of years, it feels like we already know them pretty well. There’s a lot of good chemistry, I can already feel it.
“We hang out together all the time. We always go to see the sunset, or to the beach, and even playing, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing with, it’s not like, ‘Oh, I drill better with this person.’ I feel like I’m connecting with everybody on the court on and off.”
Part of that equation is that Petrie, 389-145 as she enters her 21st year, has had former USA men’s player Brent Hilliard as her assistant for 18 years.
“I never met someone that knows so much about volleyball,” Lukes said. “He tells me things that I think, ‘Wow. I watch film, and I don’t realize that I should have done that there.’ He’s the most technical coach that I’ve ever had. I feel very lucky to be learning from him.”
USD invariably schedules tough during the preseason, and 2019 is no exception. The Toreros face Hawai’i, Washington, Nebraska, Arkansas, USC, and Long Beach State before WCC play.
“We’re super-excited to start out in Hawai’i next weekend,” Petrie said. “They have fantastic fan support, and I think they’re really going to be a great squad. We’ll see Washington again, not at Washington, so that’s good.
“And then we get to play host to a lot of great teams, there’s going to be a lot of good volleyball here at USD, with Nebraska, and USC, and Long Beach, Arkansas coming out, so it’s going to be a really tough preseason, but that’s the way we like it.
“I’m less concerned about the RPI game than I am about being pushed in the preseason. Playing the best teams that we can, obviously the wins are important, but I would much rather have quality preseason matches that are going to make us better and have to perform.”
Last season, the WCC sent USD, BYU (which made it to the national semifinals), Loyola Marymount, Saint Mary’s and Pepperdine to the NCAA Tournament.
“I think the conference is going to be really strong and is going to be a lot of fun,” Petrie said. “I think the West Coast Conference has some of the best volleyball in the country and it’s an exciting conference to be a part of.
“A lot of teams have the ability to win the whole thing. The bottom has absolutely come up. I think that BYU is going to come back down to earth a smidge, just a smidge, so I think there are going to be a lot of losses this year in conference across the board.”
She pointed out that any team in the league can win a conference match at any time and then had to laugh about Santa Clara hiring Erin Lindsey as its new cozch.
“I coached her at North Carolina,” Petrie said, “so that ages me just a little bit.”