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Best excited about prospects for 2002

Best excited about prospects for 2002

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UM volleyball season wrapup

Following a disappointing season marred by injuries and letdowns, University of Montana volleyball coach Nikki Best is, well … excited.

"We never were able to show anybody our best team and that's frustrating," said Best. "Granted some of that wasn't in our control, but we're still very committed to seeing something happen here. Something special."

The 2001 season, a year which Best said was her first losing season at any level, saw the Grizzlies go 5-16 and finish seventh in the Big Sky Conference. Adding to the frustration was the loss of three players with season-ending injuries, two of which came before the first match.

But like any coach, Best isn't dwelling on the negatives of last fall. Instead she's looking forward to the positives, such as her incoming recruiting class.

Best is elated by top recruits Whitney Pavlik, Evelyn Whitehead and Audrey Jensen. All three will add some much needed height and competitiveness to the Grizzlies next fall.

"Their mentality is they expect to win, they don't just think it would be nice to win," said Best who has a 21-30 record in two years at UM. "Mentally that's a good addition for us. We need that on our team right now."

Pavlik is a player that Best likened to current Griz starter Lizzie Wertz. Wertz led the team in kills and digs this season while earning All-Big Sky Conference honors as a sophomore. Best thinks Pavlik can be an impact player immediately.

Pavlik, a native of Laguna Beach, Calif., comes from a nationally-ranked prep team and was recruited by some top 10 teams before choosing Montana. According to Best, Pavlik has "played more volleyball than anybody I've ever recruited."

Whitehead, from Hyrum, Utah, is the exact opposite of Pavlik. She is 6-foot-3 and has little volleyball experience but developed good leaping skills as a basketball player. Best said Whitehead is a project but her height will help her be a force at the net and on the block.

Jensen, from Minden, Neb., is Best's first player from her home state of Nebraska. She too was recruited by some big name schools and could see some floor time in her first season.

With these and possibly other new players, Best said the mentality of the whole team is about to change at UM.

"We will definitely have major competition for playing time," Best said. "That in itself will raise the level (of competition) more than anything I can teach those kids."

"They'll have to get better or they won't be on the court. That's exactly where you want to be. You want players to be motivated by each other and raise their level of play and continue to grow. That's when a program can really take off."

This season got off to a bad start when junior Katy Kubista and senior Natalie Jacksha, both starters in 2000, were lost for the year with injuries. Kubista has actually been sidelined for the past two seasons but is expected to play again next year. Jacksha's career ended as a result of her injury.

And from there the ailments just piled up.

Senior Joy Pierce missed the first two weeks of the season with mononucleosis. As soon as she returned, Wertz, Montana's leading hitter, went down with a stress fracture and was out for four weeks. By the time Wertz was back on the court the Grizzlies were 4-10 and had lost middle blocker Teresa Stringer for the year with an ACL tear in her left knee.

"I feel like our season never really got started," said Best. "We never had our full team ready to go. Part of that's in your hands and part of it's not. I know that every team goes through crisis. It just seemed like we had a little extra."

That meant Montana was forced to enlist the help of its younger players as the lineup got shuffled. Inexperienced players like freshman Alice Myers and sophomore Mary Forrest were thrust into the starting middle blocker position. Freshman Wendy Baker took over the full-time setting duties midway through the season and other young players had to learn on the run.

"That ultimately hurt us the most this year," Best said. "It didn't allow us to win very many games, and not because there wasn't effort. It was just because they weren't ready."

Montana finished the year on a six-match losing streak and had its worst record since going 3-25 in 1977, the second year volleyball was a varsity sport at UM. The Griz were last in blocking and second to last in hitting percentage in the Big Sky, but third in digs and aces.

Senior Lindsay Kaiser led the Big Sky in aces and was the Grizzlies' most consistent athlete. She played in every game of every match this season. She and Pierce were the only players who exhausted their eligibility this season.

"We kind of knew going in," Best said, "that this, in some ways, was going to be a rebuilding year."

Best said she anticipates as many as 10 new bodies on the court next season. That's including recruits, transfers, and players who are coming back from redshirting or season-ending injuries.

"I'm excited about the future," said Best. "When you're a coach part of your job is to win games. It's not that we didn't work hard this year, because we did. We all worked very hard. It's just that the group that's coming in they're a level beyond what we have."

Reporter Nick Lockridge can be reached at 523-5265 or by e-mail at sportsdesk@missoulian.com.

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