Valeria Martinez still vividly remembers the first time she stepped onto Hostetler Court.
The outside hitter was UC Merced’s first big signing in the school’s first women’s volleyball recruiting class, and the student body turned out in force to see what she could do. She rewarded those who attended with a match-high 24 kills and the first victory for any team in Bobcats history.
The wins haven’t been as plentiful as Martinez would have hoped since then, and her inaugural class has been whittled down to just her. Still, as the program enters its fourth season, the senior has hope of going out a winner.
“I truly believe this is the year we do it,” Martinez said. “It’s funny when you think how much has changed in those four years, but coach just keeps bringing in new players that make us that much better every year.
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“We were right there last year, and then the injuries started and we faded. If we avoid the injuries, there’s no reason we don’t make the conference tournament and fight for the title.”
Allen McCreary’s squad certainly looked poised to make school history, opening the 2013 season 10-6 overall and 3-1 in the California Pacific Conference. The team had high hopes of finishing with the school’s first winning season and being the first to qualify for the conference tournament since the format changed to just the top four teams in 2012.
But it wasn’t meant to be, as injuries took their toll down the stretch. The Bobcats went 3-7 the rest of the way and 2-6 in conference. The wheels particularly came off when setter Genna Garrett went down with a season-ending shoulder injury.
“The injuries are just something we haven’t been able to avoid,” McCreary said. “Losing Genna was particularly tough, because the offense was never the same without her.
“We’ve done our best to address it. We’ve added nine new players to try and provide depth everywhere if the injuries do creep up. We’ve also revamped our training, doing Pilates and more intense stretching to try to keep everyone on the court.”
The Bobcats enter tonight’s season-opening doubleheader against the Oregon Institute of Technology with seven returners and nine freshmen. The first serve is set for 3 p.m. at Hostetler Court.
The team has already lost junior outside hitter McKenzie Willett to a season-ending knee injury but still returns plenty of firepower up front. Martinez and fellow senior Kuuipolani Braceros were 1-2 on the team in kills, and senior middle blocker Jade Garrett led the Bobcats with 70 blocks.
Junior Shari Pandi will look to improve upon last season’s 100 kills, and the explosive Victoria Rouse is fully healed from her 2013 knee injury. Most importantly, Garrett’s shoulder is recovered enough to run the show in the middle.
“We weren’t the same offensively once Genna went down,” Braceros said. “She can do things other girls can’t, and we just play at a different pace when she’s on the court. We’ve got a lot of hitters back and some good new ones, so we should be better.”
Learning from some of the team’s past shortcomings, McCreary got himself three liberos (Justine Limon, Taylour Matsumura and Annalise Reynosa) and a backup setter in Jesika Tyler. Melinda Gonzalez (Pitman High School) will give the team depth at middle blocker, and outside hitters Rachael Schaefer and Vanesa Serna (Merced High) will contribute offensively.
“We’re excited to see if we can finish off what we started last year,” McCreary said. “There’s a nice balance with about half the team upperclassmen and the other half freshmen. The conference looks like it could be wide open. If we can avoid another string of injuries, we should be right there in it.”