By Dave Reed, USA Today
When Jennifer Wittenburg enrolled at UCLA in the fall of 1996, her credentials seemed to indicate she was destined to have a memorable collegiate career. She was a two-time all-state selection in talent-rich Texas, a member of the Texas Elite Club team and a Volleyball magazine Fab 50 selection. But a knee injury suffered just after her eighth match with the Bruins and a shoulder problem that returned after she transferred to Houston kept Wittenburg from reaching her potential.
Despite losing almost three full seasons to injuries, Wittenburg is now making the most of her last chance to prove that she is one of the most complete players in collegiate volleyball. She is currently ranked among the top six in Division I in both kills and digs, and she has helped lead the Cougars to a 14-3 record and the No. 1 ranking in their region.
Before the season started, the expectations for Wittenburg were so low, she was not even named to the Conference USA preseason all-conference team. By the time this season is over, she will probably be the C-USA player of the year and an All-American selection.
"No one in the conference really knew about me," Wittenburg says. "They had a little touch of me last year, but then I got injured. This is really my first year of playing completely injury free. I haven't given the nation a chance to see my talent. It's a motivation for me to try to end my last year of collegiate volleyball on a high note."
One Cougar the rest of Conference USA did know about was senior middle hitter Michelle Frazier, who was the preseason choice as player of the year. A first team all-conference selection in 1999, Frazier ranked among the conference leaders with a .281 hitting percentage and an average of 2.66 kills per game. While her numbers are not at high this season, Frazier is the perfect complement to Wittenburg and helps give UH a more diversified attack.
"Frazier's happy to have some help," coach Bill Walton says. "We're certainly more productive this year on the offensive side, and I think that's because of Jennifer. Frazier has a little bit of shoulder injury that gets really sore at times. Because she doesn't have to hit the ball quite as much, it certainly feels better for her shoulder. So she's kind of happy to have Jennifer around. It's been nothing but a positive.
"Frazier's numbers are down a little bit, and we're working hard to make sure we don't forget she carried a great deal of the load. What we should be doing is maintaining Frazier's part and adding Jennifer to it, not subtracting from Frazier's part. It's important for us to maintain our middle attack without just totally going outside."
Last year, Wittenburg had 218 kills and averaged 3.11 kills per game. This year, Houston's rightside hitter already has 367 kills and an average of 6.3 per game. She posted a career high 35 kills in a five-game win at South Florida, giving the Cougars a victory over the team that is currently second in the C-USA National Division. What makes Wittenburg so effective is that her attacks can come from anywhere on the court.
"I'm not known for tipping ... I just swing away," Wittenburg says. "My favorite is from the back row. No one has been able to stop it yet. They don't expect it. They're very surprised that we run the back row attack as often as we do. It's part of our offense, it's not just on an errant pass. It's actually part of our set plays."
Another aspect of Wittenburg's game that puts her among the best players in college volleyball is that she plays the full rotation. She currently ranks sixth in digs at 4.42 per game and has an effective serve.
"It shows how well rounded I am," Wittenburg says. "Offensively, I get a lot of kills. But it also shows that I can also stop other teams from scoring. I'm able to play the back row, so it's not just a fluke that I get so many sets."
The Houston coaching staff is also excited because they believe Wittenburg continues to get better with every match. With the most important part of the schedule coming up, the end of the regular season as well as the conference and NCAA tournaments, Wittenburg should be even sharper when the Cougars are playing in the national spotlight.
"This year she's been a lot more effective," Walton says. "Her efficiency gets better and better with every match, which is experience. If you look at her last year of high school and her first three years of college, where most everybody else is getting 60, 70 or 80 matches in, she probably didn't get more than 14 matches in, if you count the spring. In Wittenburg, we've got one of the players that can really carry the load."
With three more wins last week, Houston extended its winning streak to 10 matches and improved to 7-0 in conference play. The Cougars will play host to Marquette on Friday, just their sixth home match of the year, then will play at DePaul on Sunday. The Blue Demons were the only conference opponent to defeat Houston at the Hofheinz Pavilion last season, stopping the Cougars' 10-match winning streak.
Houston will play six of its final eight conference matches at home, including showdowns with Cincinnati and Louisville. Not only will those matches help determine the seeding for the conference tournament, but also the Bearcats and Cardinals are two of the top teams in the C-USA American Division and are ranked second and fourth, respectively, in the Midwest Region rankings. The team that leads the rankings at the end of the year could earn a chance to host the first and second round of the NCAA tournament.
"It [a C-USA championship] is definitely not enough," Wittenburg says. "We're looking for the home-court advantage in the NCAA tournament and making it past the first round, which we haven't done in I don't know how many years. I'm looking forward to making it past the first and second and seeing at what level we can compete."
Houston has made nine consecutive NCAA tournament appearances, advancing to the "Elite Eight" in 1994. That team defeated Clemson and Florida in the postseason before falling to UCLA in the Regional Finals. The '94 Cougars finished the season with a 26-7 record and set the school standard for wins in a season. With 14 victories and at least 13 more matches to play, this year's team has a chance to break that mark.
"The '94 team was awfully good, but that team was really middle dominant," Walton says. "This year's team is much better on the outside, but not quite as good in the middle. You can side out in the middle, but you've got to be able to score points on the outside. This team is superior in terms of its attacking skills on the outside.
"With every team I've ever coached, there's a defining moment where your team suddenly makes a psychological change in terms of what they believe in themselves. You kind of sense we're getting closer and closer to it. We need one thing to happen to us in the next few months to make that light bulb go on, and once that happens, I don't think you'd really want to play us in November or December. I think we'll surprise a lot of people."