WALLA WALLA -- After closing last season on a high note, winning three of its final five Northwest Conference matches, the Whitman College volleyball team is primed to continue those winning ways this fall.
"We have a strong core group of returning veterans and a big group of talented first-year players," third-year Whitman coach Carolyn Papineau said. "We are very excited about the chance to build on the success we enjoyed at the end of last season."
"This is a stronger team all across the board -- at every position," Papineau added. "We have an incoming class of players with a high level of competitive experience, which gives us a lot more options. All possibilities are before us right now. We're going to have a lot of fun creating a new level of success for Whitman volleyball."
With just eight healthy players on hand to start last season, Whitman struggled through a long campaign, finishing with a 3-22 record overall, which included a 3-13 mark in the NWC.
"We were short-handed and young with no seniors, but for the most part, we were in our matches and competitive," Papineau said. "It took us awhile to get over the hump before we made a nice turn-around during the second half of the conference season.
Now sporting a roster of 13 players, led by seniors Alex Graves and Breanne Robirds, Whitman completes its early preparations when it hosts Walla Walla Community College tonight in an exhibition at 7 p.m. in refurbished Sherwood Center.
For its official season openers, Whitman travels to Thousand Oaks, Calif., to play four tournament matches Sept. 11-12. The Missionaries then start NWC play at home, hosting Willamette and Linfield on Sept. 18-19.
Graves and junior libero Kelsie Butts are in their second seasons as team captains.
"Alex and Kelsie are incredible competitors, and they do a super job in their leadership roles," Papineau said. "They did a lot to establish good team chemistry over the summer months. They made sure everyone stayed on track with their conditioning and that the new players felt welcome.
"Alex will hit on the outside again for us, and now that we have a stronger all-around team to put on the floor, we're looking forward to seeing what kind of senior season Alex can have," Papineau said. "We're going to have many offensive threats coming from different parts of the floor, so she won't have to shoulder so much of the load. We should get Alex more high quality swings this season."
For her part, Graves is "working on expanding her range of shots and becoming an even better all-around player than she was a year ago," Papineau said.
Butts put together a strong season last fall. As Whitman's libero, she led the team in digs, averaging 4.44 per game, which ranked her third in the NWC in that statistical category.
"Kelsie is working hard on extending her defensive range," Papineau said. "She tries to get better every day -- every time she touches the ball ¬≠ and she's ready to take her game to a higher level this fall."
Robirds, the team's only other senior, is in her second Missionary season. She was third in kills for Whitman last season, and fourth in digs.
"Like all of our returning players, Brea starts the season in great physical shape," Papineau said. "She has a lot more spring in her legs, and she's hitting the ball well in training."
Sophomore Katie Miller, a 5-foot-7 outside hitter, returns after a solid rookie season. She was second on the team in kills, averaging 2.49 per game, and third in digs at 2.72 per game. She also was third in service aces with 22, trailing only Graves (28) and Butts (24).
One key to Papineau's optimism for the season ahead is that Katie Richards, a 5-foot-7 junior setter, is back and healthy. She missed most of last season due to injury, and it was no coincidence that Whitman's late season surge coincided with her return to the court.
"This will be Katie's first full season as a setter, and she's ready to assume that role," Papineau said. "She brings quickness, mobility and speed to the position. We can run a quick offense because she has those skills. She's also an offensive threat in the front row, and it's always good to have a lefty at the net."
While Whitman returns at least some collegiate experience at most positions, Papineau and her coaching staff will be plugging a void at middle blocker with one or more talented first-year players.
"That position is really up for grabs right now," Papineau said. "We're looking at multiple options, and we're fortunate that our first-year players come from very good club volleyball programs."
One of the newcomers in the mix is Courtney Brewer, a 5-foot-11 graduate of Alaska's South Anchorage High School. Others competing for time in the middle are 5-foot-11 Olivia Nielson (A.J. Dimond HS, Anchorage, Alaska) and 6-foot Carrie Cecil (Dana Hall School, Wellesley, Mass.).
Rachel Shober (Archbishop Murphy High School, Everett, Wash.) is a fourth first-year option in the middle.
Other newcomers on the roster include Amanda Holberg, a sophomore defensive specialist and setter who didn't play in her first year at Whitman, and Hannah Holloran, a 5-foot-9 first-year outside hitter from Tualatin (Ore.) High School.