WALLA WALLA - Without a junior or senior on her roster, Whitman College volleyball coach Carolyn Papineau understands that some fans might worry about the obvious lack of experience.
"There's no question we're young, but that doesn't mean we're lacking in maturity," Papineau said. "Every one of our players has a strong volleyball background so I don't think we're going to be hampered by our relative youth. What's going to make a difference are the positives that this group brings to the floor, lots of talent and tons of energy, enthusiasm and competitive fire."
At the heart of the Missionary roster are a handful of returning sophomores headed by Courtney Brewer, 5-foot,11-inch middle blocker, who led the Northwest Conference (NWC) in hitting percentage a year ago.
The first-year reinforcements riding onto the scene are led by Jillian Davis, a powerful 5-foot, 9-inch outside hitter.
"We have a lot of players with complementary abilities," Papineau said. "This group is coming together very quickly. From top to bottom, everyone has bought into the system. We've had a good mix of focus, intensity and communication."
Olivia Nielson, a 5-foot, 10-inch sophomore, joins Brewer as a returning starter at middle blocker.
Brewer made the biggest impact last fall, topping Whitman in blocks with numbers that ranked her 10th during the NWC season. She also averaged 2.44 kills per game on the season while hitting a healthy .295 against conference foes.
Nielson, who like Brewer hails from Anchorage, Alaska, led the Missionaries in block assists last fall with 48. She was second overall in total blocks with 54, finishing just two behind Brewer.
Papineau also expects more strength at the net this season from sophomore Carrie Cecil, a 6-foot outside hitter who showed plenty of promise a year ago.
Newcomers with a knack for covering the net are Rachel Cline, a 5-foot, 9-inch setter and Maddy Bell, a 6-foot middle blocker/right-side hitter.
Cline and Taylor Aschenbrenner, a 5-foot-7 first-year player from Olympia's Black Hills, give Whitman two solid options at the setting spot.
With Cline and Aschenbrenner pulling the trigger, look for Whitman to generate a "more balanced offense" than it has in recent years, Papineau said. "We can spread the ball around and run a more fast-paced offense.
Alex Graves, an All-NWC player who led the conference in kills last season, graduated in the spring, leaving a gaping hole in the Missionary offense that Papineau hopes to plug with her prize recruit from Texas, Jillian Davis.
Davis, a four-year captain at El Paso's Coronado High School, earned all-district and all-city "outstanding hitter" honors last season while helping her T-Birds win district, bi-district and area championships.
Other attack options are Anna Conrad, a 5-foot-10 first-year sophomore from Middle Park High School in Granby, Colo., and Becca Gotz, a 5-foot-8 first-year outside hitter.
Rounding out the roster are sophomores Rachel Shober and Hannah Holloran.
Whitman, which finished eighth last season in the nine-team NWC, has the ability to have a great deal more success this year, Papineau said. The Missionaries split matches last fall with two of the teams that finished higher in the league standings.
"The rate at which we learn the system, execute the details and bring intensity to our games will determine how far this team will go," Papineau said. "As it said on the back of our practice shirts, ‘Success doesn't come to you . . . you go to it.'"
Whitman opens its season at home with an exhibition match against Walla Walla Community College at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
The season gets underway in earnest on Saturday and Sunday when the Missionaries host a four-team tournament in the Sherwood Center.