August 15, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 17

Benson takes cautious approach to EWU volleyball season

Eastern Washington University’s new/old women’s head volleyball coach Wade Benson is calculated in his approach to the 2013 season.

EWU
EWU’s new volleyball coach Wade Benson says it will take a while to return his Eagles to prominence.

With a solid core of returning players, plus having the most successful coach in the program’s history, it may be easy to have great expectations.

It appears Benson certainly knows the potential, but he’s careful not to show many of his cards.

“This year is more about learning how to win a conference championship,“ Benson said. “If we can get our players to understand what it's going to take to do what we're trying to do, which is to win a conference title and return to the NCAA Tournament, we'll be successful.“

The question is how long it will take?

The Eagles return four starters and eight letter winners from last year's squad that suffered through a down season uncharacteristic of EWU's winning history. The 2012 campaign was indeed one full of drama, beginning with the sudden resignation of head coach Miles Kydd Aug. 28.

Interim coach Lisa Westlake oversaw the sudden transition and guided the Eagles to a 5-26 overall record, 5-15 in Big Sky play.

Benson’s hiring was announced Dec. 18. And he knew then he was no instant elixir.

“I am very honored that the administration chose me to help Eastern Washington once again compete for Big Sky Championships, as well as NCAA berths,”Benson said when his appointment was announced. ”There is a lot of work to be done, but I am very excited about the opportunity.”

He sees the process to restore Eastern’s program to the prominence it enjoyed during Benson’s previous stint from 2000 to 2006 as not being instant, but a process with a reasonable timeline.

”I have faith that in a year or two we will be able to restore Eastern to playing at a championship level,” he said.

Benson assisted current assistant EWU athletics director Pam Parks from 1996 to 1999 and assumed the head coach’s role in 2000 when Parks stepped down to become an administrator. He had an impressive record of 154-55, .737, the best winning percentage of any coach in school history. His Big Sky record during that time of 78-24, .765 and he still ranks among the top four in conference history.

The Eagles had six-consecutive 20-win seasons, three Big Sky regular-season titles and one tournament title in 2001 under Benson.

Benson left Eastern after the 2006 season to become an assistant coach position at Auburn University of the Southeast Conference. After one year with the Tigers, Benson was promoted to head coach. In just three seasons, Benson took Auburn from a 6-25 team in 2008 to a national-tournament contender in 2010 with 21-13 record.

He stepped down following the 2010 campaign and in the past two years, has been in private business and living in Miramar Beach, Fla. Prior to his hire, Benson was coaching club volleyball, giving private lessons and served as a volleyball consultant, conducting seminars and clinics around the country.

”We're definitely bringing in a lot of things that are new to this group of players,” Benson said. "The attitude, the pace of practice, the system, and the training regimen are changes this group will need to adjust to. They've all definitely bought in and are ready to hit the ground running.”

Senior setter Lindsay Niemeier and senior middle blocker Ashley Wright will captain this year's team and are the two most experienced players on the roster. However, Niemeier, the Eagles' starting setter in 2011, suffered a knee injury in Eastern's first match last year that sidelined her for the season.

”Both Lindsay and Ashley are the epitome of what type of person we want in this program," Benson said. ”They do things right both on and off the court.”

Also back are junior outside hitter Talia Fermantez and sophomore outside hitter Kellen Barfield, both of whom played more than 90 sets last season.

Sophomore outside hitter Allie Schumacher, who paced the Eagles with an average of 2.63 kills per set, is back after a stellar freshman campaign that saw her set a school record for kills in a match with 35 against Northern Arizona Nov. 1. Junior Kelsey Julian is back on the right side of Eastern's attack after playing in 77 sets last year and averaging 1.51 kills per set and 0.66 digs per set.

Despite the number of quality players returning, Benson insists all positions are up for grabs. ”We have enough quality players to create competition in each spot,” said Benson. ”All of our positions are wide open.”

Nobody has a spot guaranteed, he said. A group of 10 newcomers will look to push EWU's returning players for a spot on the court.

Benson will get his first look at the team in a scrimmage set for noon, this Sunday, Aug. 18 at Reese Court versus an Alumni team. They will play their next 11 matches on the road in a variety of tournaments and matches before opening Big Sky play Sept. 19 by hosting Sacramento State.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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