The senior in the middle is a player who will literally be in the middle of most of the action this season. Senior Michelle Frazier returns to her middle-hitter position with an impressive volleyball resum, including 1999 Conference USA Co-Player of the Year honors and All-District VI accolades from the American Volleyball Coaches Association. The 5-foot-11 native of Kingwood, Texas, finished 28th in the nation in blocking last season and led the league in hitting percentage for C-USA matches (.328 average). Frazier was in fact the only player in the conference ranked among the Top 10 in the league for the diverse volleyball skills of hitting, blocking and serving.
An equally explosive senior to keep an eye on will be senior outside hitter Jennifer Wittenburg. The expectations for the 6-foot-3, local standout are fairly high and with good reason. For the first time in three full years Wittenburg enters a season injury-free. Because some injuries that originally happened over two years ago had kept her almost completely removed from the volleyball court, Wittenburg's 1999 season was mainly spent getting familiar to live action. Then just when it looked like she had regained the form that made her a dominating player at Cy Falls High School in Houston, she injured her shoulder right in the middle of last season and returned to the disabled list for an entire month. Now healthy, Wittenburg will be the Cougars' primary outside option in 2000.
Seniors Bobbi Stewart and Stephanie Heiskell started a host of matches last season and will return to their roles as starting outside hitters. Though Heiskell was a newcomer to Walton's system last year as a junior transfer, she played her way into a starting assignment 14 times and tied for fourth in hitting percentage. It was Heiskell's play that paced the Cougars at the NCAA Tournament match in Austin.
Stewart earned third team all-conference honors last season and was selected to the league's all-tournament team after helping UH reach the semi-final round. She co-led the Cougars in kills per game (3.11) and was third in hitting and fourth in blocks. Both Stewart and Heiskell are projected to play outside, but the veteran tandem have an extra dimension in that either one is versatile enough to also make a contribution to the team in the middle if the need arises.
There's quite a bit of experience among the outside hitters, and there is at setter too. Senior Morgan Wallen played well in her first full year as the starting setter, helping the team earn the C-USA regular season co-championship and a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Wallen finished third in the league in set assists (13.03 per game) and directed the Houston offense to the No. 3 ranking in the conference in kills per C-USA game and hitting percentage for all matches. No less than six different Cougar hitters averaged 2.80 kills per C-USA match because of the senior's even set distribution.
A player expected to get a lot more sets this year is sophomore outside hitter Jane Anne Karasek. Last season Karasek appeared in 47 games and worked her way into the Cougar starting lineup four times as a true freshman. The 6-foot-1 outside hitter from Caldwell, Texas, averaged better than a kill per game and hit for a .300 percentage or better in a match seven different times. She started and played in every match last spring.
Other young players who are candidates for extensive play are the middle blocker duo of Leslie Lasiter and Amanda Baggett. Baggett, a redshirt freshman, appeared to be on the fast track to making an immediate impact on the team, becoming the first of all the Cougar freshmen last season to play and then start in a match. A knee injury however sidelined her in only the second match of the season and she has had to work hard in rehabilitation in both the fall and spring semesters. The hopes remain high for her return.
Lasiter is a 6-foot-1 sophomore from Lufkin, Texas, who finished third on the team in blocks per game as a true freshman in 1999. She too though has been working to bounce back from a knee injury she suffered in the summer. If neither Lasiter or Bagget are at 100 percent for the second middle spot, Heiskell or Stewart could step in with Karasek starting outside.
Sophomore Donna Sellen gained some experience in the setter's role as a true freshman and will no doubt get some more opportunities at the position this season. Her biggest contribution though was from her skills as a defensive specialist, which she used to start more matches and play in more games than any other Cougar freshmen last year.
Four Cougar newcomers, Chandra Kerley, Monica Prince, Christina Green and Gabi Carbone, will also get chances to shine in 2000. Carbone is a junior transfer from Seward County Community College in Liberal, Kansas, who led her team to an eye-opening 52-2 record. The 5-foot-8 hitter from Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, used her international experience to maintain a .312 attack percentage and average a steady 3.25 kills and 3.80 digs per game. She earned First Team National Junior College All-America honors last season and will challenge at outside hitter.
Christina Green had a great deal of success as multi-position player from the competitive California High School ranks. The 5-11 outside/middle hitter from Sebastopol, California, led El Molina High School to a 32-10 record and bid to the state championships where she set the state tournament record for hitting percentage.
Monica Prince is a local standout at middle hitter from nearby Sterling High School in Baytown, Texas. Prince led her team in kills and was selected as the squad's Most Valuable Player.
Kerley is an explosive middle blocker from John Jay High School in San Antonio. A multi-sport letterwinner in high school, Kerley earned her team's Outstanding Achievement award in volleyball. The newcomers give Walton plenty of options to find the winning combinations and he believes all the rookies will provide plenty of firepower for the team in the years to come.
With so many promising and experienced players capable of playing so many positions, the only area of concern is the Cougars' first-rate schedule of tough opponents. Year-in and year-out the UH volleyball team routinely plays one of the toughest schedules in the nation and the upcoming 2000 season will be no different.
In addition to the gauntlet, 16-match Conference USA slate, Houston will face no less than eight teams that advanced to the NCAA Championship Tournament in 1999. Cougar volleyball has been invited to two prestigious tournaments and will host one of its own to close-out the regular season. Mix in some regional and state non-conference rivals such as Texas and Texas A&M as well as crosstown foe Rice, and the 2000 slate should prove to be as exciting as it is challenging.
Note that after a three-year hiatus because of quirks in the schedule, Houston will finally get to play fellow C-USA powers Louisville and Cincinnati at home. Cincinnati, Louisville and Houston have won each of the last three C-USA tournaments so all three teams closing out the regular season in Hofheinz Pavilion will no doubt have an effect on the the league tournament in Charlotte the following week. From start to finish it's an elite schedule for one of the nation's elite teams. With talent and senior leadership, the Cougars appear ready for the challenge and another NCAA Tournament bid.