RENO - Could this be the year for dethroning the queen of volleyball in the Western Athletic Conference?
The University of Nevada, which returns 10 from last year's team, could be one the few teams in the WAC to put a stop to Hawaii's dominance in the league this season. The Rainbow Wahine are nationally ranked once again and are aiming for their 12th straight WAC title.
With the WAC Tournament switching cities from Reno to Las Cruces, N.M., and beginning one week early before Thanksgiving, Wolf Pack coach Devin Scruggs feels this may be the year to upset Hawaii.
"They wanted to rotate the WAC tourney every year," said Scruggs, who's returning for her 11th season. "It's fair for equality to an extent but not a good idea for fan support. It's huge for the Hawaiian fans. This (Reno) is a vacation destination. Many choose this as a vacation during this time."
Nevertheless, Scrugss and her newly organized staff will have a tough preseason road before the conference begins next month.
Oscar Crespo, Scruggs' top assistant, left the program in February to coach the San Jose State Spartans. Since then, Scruggs promoted Ray Batalon as the head assistant coach and former player Alana Jackson was hired as a second assistant. Nate Hallet returns for his second year as a volunteer assistant coach.
"This is the best staff in my 10 years of coaching," Scruggs said. "The chemistry in the staff is absolutely phenomenal. We get along, and it's fun."
Scruggs said picking up Jackson is a big asset because of her familiarity as a player in the Scruggs system. Jackson played two seasons for Scruggs in 1997 and 1998.
"She's experienced in Division I coaching (Santa Barbara and College of William and Mary)," Scruggs said. "She knows me, and she's been phenomenal to the team. She's a lot of fun."
Nevada, which opens the season Friday at home against Pacific at 7 p.m., has a challenging preseason schedule which includes games against Sacramento State, UNLV, Hofstra and Washington State.
"It's extremely strong," Scruggs said. "Unfortunately, we don't have the number of matches we would like to have."
Having a good preseason, though, will beef up the Wolf Pack for league play.
Scruggs said four teams besides Nevada should battle Hawaii for the top spot in the WAC. She noted New Mexico State, San Jose State, Idaho and Boise State possessing strong programs.
"Once again, Hawaii is the front runner," she said. "It's going to be a battle for second, third, fourth and fifth."
The Wolf Pack will have some shoes to fill after losing three players last season to graduation.
Setter Tristin Johnson and front line players Brianne Hall and Carly Sorsensen finished their careers despite the team ending the season on a five-match skid.
The strength of the team will lie in the front line with seniors Teal Ericson and Karly Sipherd returning. And the offense will have a new look.
"We're going to be a different looking team with position changes," Scruggs said. "We're a faster offensive and taller defensive team than last year."
In each of the last two seasons, Ericson has been named to the All-WAC second team and was selected to the 2007 Preseason WAC team. The 6-foot outside hitter will be crucial to the offense like last year after averaging 4.09 kills per game, ranked second in the WAC.
"She has the same power. She's improved her ball control," Scruggs said of Ericson, a North Tahoe grad. "She improved hitting out of the back row. We haven't done blocking so far. Hopefully we'll see an increase in blocks."
Sipherd brings a new kind of energy to the floor, which could play a big role in momentum and intensity with neck-and-neck matches.
The three-time second-team All-WAC selection is healthy after battling knee injuries that required surgery last year. Sipherd led the team and ranked fourth in the conference averaging 1.31 blocks per game last season while her 2.85 kills per game was second on the team.
"They'll both be ready for the August 24 start. They're both healthy," Scruggs said of her two seniors. "Karly is jumping higher. Her knees are feeling better."
Returning for her third season is Allison Hernandez, a valuable 5-9 outside hitter with solid power.
She led the Pack averaging 2.85 digs per game in 30 games last year, and in the first eight matches of the season, she reached double figures in digs and 14 times on the season.
Sophomores Jorgan Staker and Sage Aune provide exceptional height at the net with Staker checking in at 6-1 and Sune at 6-2.
Both recorded ample playing time last season, and with one year under their belts, they should help stabilize the front line with attacks and blocks.
New to the front line are freshmen Lindsay Baldwin, Kylie Harrington, and Brittni Yates.
"Lindsay is doing fantastic. It looks like she will play in the middle," Scruggs said. "Brittany will be a developing player. We'll be working on her development and athleticism."
Replacing Johnson might be the toughest - but not impossible - task this season.
Ashley Miller returns for her senior year after redshirting last season as Johnson wrapped up her fourth year with the Wolf Pack. The transfer student will be backed up by sophomores Sonnie Sei and KatiJo Matthews.
"Ashley is certainly vocal," Scruggs said regarding leadership. "She definitely has it in her to take the leadership responbility. She worked out very hard all summer and is a good role model."
Dana Henry and Lauren Kelly round out the returning players and will be useful on defense as the libero. Matthews will see playing time as a libero, and freshman Nicole Link will battle for playing time.