Valeria Martinez said it feels like starting fresh, but not in a bad way.
The first-team California Pacific Conference outside hitter is just one of five returners from last season's inaugural UC Merced women's volleyball team.
Head coach Allen McCreary has added nine new players, leaving the Golden Bobcats just a couple weeks to get familiarized with the ins and out of each other's games and personalities.
Martinez said there's been growing pains, but welcome ones. McCreary's first official recruiting class has added height, athleticism, pace and depth to a team that went 4-13 in its first collegiate season.
"We have a lot of talented players that we've added," said Martinez. "You can see the difference in practice. When we scrimmage everybody's fighting for every single point. Girls are diving for every ball.
"It's intense, which is what college volleyball is supposed to feel like."
Martinez and company are going to need that intensity with a schedule that's loaded with NAIA top 25 opponents, including last year's national runner up Concordia.
"We don't just want to compete in the conference," McCreary said. "We want to eventually be a program on the national stage.
"In order to do that, you have to play those teams. We're going to do that this season and the girls will get a taste of what it takes to compete at that level."
The action gets underway today as UC Merced travels to Oregon for four matches at the Paul Elliot Invitational.
The Bobcats open with a noon game against host Southern Oregon and then take on Westminster College at 4 p.m. UC Merced concludes the trip with a Saturday showdown against preseason No. 5 Biola.
"I'm pretty excited for the challenge," transfer middle blocker Patricia Schellentrager said. "Biola is my sister's alma mater, so there's some bragging rights on the line.
"We play some big time programs and we're anxious to show them what we can do as just a second-year program."
McCreary is pleased with the talent and versatility he's been able to add, but acknowledges their inexperience may be an issue.
"We're really young, there's no getting around that," McCreary said. "So what we have to understand going in is there's going to be mistakes and we just have to fight through them.
"Fortunately, the athleticism we've added should help compensate for that youth."
Martinez and setter Caroline Mack are the only returners that saw regular time last year, leading the team in kills and assists respectively.
McCreary hopes the additions of freshmen Vicki Rouse, Genna Garrett, Arena Martinez, Justina Keith and local transfers Schellentrager (Mariposa and Merced College) and Kathryn Blake (Golden Valley and Fresno Pacific) will bring a little more consistent firepower to the Golden Bobcat offense.
"Last year Valeria was basically the go-to player," McCreary said. "This year there's a lot more options on the court and it's taken a lot of pressure off of her.
"You can see she's more naturally into the flow of the games now, not trying to force things.
"The other thing our additions bring is the ability to play at a pace we couldn't last year. With Genna running the floor we can play much faster and be more dynamic.
"These girls are definitely going to have some challenges ahead of them with the level of competition we're facing and the time we're going to spend on the road, but I look forward to seeing how they handle that."
2012 UC Merced Volleyball
2011 RECORD: 4-13
KEY RETURNERS: Valeria Martinez (OH), Caroline Mack (S), Valorie Smart (MB).
NEW FACES: Vickie Rouse (OH), Genna Garrett (S), Patricia Schellentrager (MB), Kat Blake (MB), Justina Keith (OH).
SCHEDULE: Opens today at Southern Oregon tournament -- vs. Southern Oregon, noon; vs. Westminster, 4 p.m.
FIRST HOME GAME: Aug. 24 vs. Embry-Riddle, 7 p.m. (UC Merced/Holiday Inn Express Invite)