June 10, 1997

1997 Purdue Women's Volleyball Outlook

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - The Joey Vrazel Era of Purdue volleyball officially began two years ago when Vrazel was named the second head coach in the history of the program. But the biggest transformation by the Boilermakers figures to take place this season.

Why? Eleven of the 13 players on the roster were either recruited and signed by Vrazel or have played only for her during their collegiate careers. Senior co-captains Sarina Harris and Linda Menconi are the lone holdovers from pre- Vrazel days.

"We definitely will have a new look this year," Vrazel says. "We have a very different and exciting mix of players. We will be young overall, but the players are hungry and are not going to back away from anything.

"I am pleased with the progress made by our returning players and am excited about the talent of our second recruiting class. The success of our season will depend on the health of our returnees and the ability of our freshmen to adapt to the pace of college volleyball. Our team chemistry is a plus, and combined with the talent the players have, anything can happen."

Last season the Boilermakers (13-19 overall, 6-14 Big Ten Conference) developed into one of the nation's top offensive teams. They ranked 12th in kills (17.36) and eighth in assists (15.88) while setting school season records in both categories. Although Purdue loses three of its top four offensive players from a year ago (Lauri Grimes, Kelli Kerkhoff and Brooke White), Vrazel is confident this season's squad can be every bit as powerful and even more balanced. "Lauri and Brooke were our go-to players last year and many times carried us offensively," Vrazel says. "Yes, we have to replace them, but I think we have more weapons now than either of the previous two years. Teams won't be able to focus on any one or two players because we have so many options."

Following is a position-by-position look at the 1997 Boilermakers:

Middle Blocker
Sophomore Connie Paul (5-10) returns at one of these two positions. As a redshirt freshman last season, Paul burst onto the scene and developed into a legitimate hitter and blocker en route to earning the team's Most Improved Player Award. She appeared in 29 matches and ranked second on the team with 0.90 blocks per game (1.03 in Big Ten play) to go with an average of 1.91 kills (fourth on the squad). "Connie was the story of the year in 1996," Vrazel says. "She came here with limited experience, made the team as a walkon, redshirted her first year and now is a key performer for us. She really developed into a solid hitter last season and during the spring improved her blocking and ball-handling. Connie is such a good athlete that there is no telling how good she can be."

Another sophomore, Sarah Emke (6-0), was saddled by injury and illness a year ago but still managed to average 1.40 kills and record 22 total blocks in 19 matches played. She showed flashes of brilliance when healthy down the stretch and recorded season highs of 18 kills, a .444 hitting percentage (18-6-27), six digs and four service aces against Michigan at home in November.

"Sarah had a rough freshman year, but she has the talent to be a dominant player in the Big Ten," Vrazel says. "I expect she will start showing that ability this year. She hits the slide as well as anyone. Sarah also is quick, dynamic and a good blocker, so there's no question she will be a key for us."

Three freshmen join the mix in the middle. They are Yolanda Cumbess (5-11), Sarah Wengler (6-4) and Jennie Williams (6-0), who can play both the left and rightside hitter positions, as well. Cumbess is a talented athlete with great jumping ability, speed and quickness. She was district Most Valuable Player as a senior and played on district championship teams both her junior and senior years. Cumbess, who also participated in basketball, softball, tennis and track and field, was district singles champion in tennis as a junior.

"Although relatively new to the game, Yolanda is an unbelievable athlete," Vrazel says. "She also is extremely intelligent, so I expect her to pick up things fairly quickly. Yolanda has a bright future ahead of her."

At 6-4, Wengler already has made history as the tallest player in the history of the Purdue volleyball program. She was an all-state choice as a senior, a three-time all-district pick and a two-time all-conference and all-regional selection. During her career, Wengler received the team's Best Offensive, Hardest Worker and Most Improved Player awards and was a member of the state championship team her sophomore season.

"We are looking for Sarah to develop into a wicked front row player," Vrazel says. "We need someone to combat the big middles we face in the conference. She moves really well for her size and is a tremendous physical presence."

Williams comes to Purdue with a great deal of experience and a powerful arm. She was a three-time all-state selection and conference Most Valuable Player both her junior and senior years. Her team won the state championship as a senior. Williams was an academic all-state honoree and participated in basketball and swimming, as well. "Jennie probably will end up playing outside but has played middle in both high school and club, so if we need her to fill in, I am confident she can do the job," Vrazel says. "She has been in a successful high school program and has a tremendous winning attitude to go with all-around skills."

Outside Hitter
Junior Bev Krupa (5-11) is back at one of the leftside spots after starting 29 of 32 matches last season. She ranked third on the team with 3.02 kills per game (3.12 in Big Ten play) and was fourth with 2.01 digs. Krupa enjoyed particular success against intrastate rival Indiana, pounding a career-high 20 kills to go with 15 digs and two service aces in Bloomington and tallying 16 kills on a .400 hitting percentage (16-6-25) at home. She underwent tendon surgery in both knees during the offseason but is recovering in fine fashion. "There's no doubt that we are counting on Bev to be a major force for us," Vrazel says. "Her health is a bit of a question, but I have every reason to believe she will be fit as a fiddle. Bev improved so much from her freshman to sophomore year, and she is such a strong athlete."

The other left side opening is wide open entering preseason practice among 5-7 senior Sarina Harris, 6-0 freshman Katie Gibbons and Williams.

Harris, who joined the program as a walkon four years ago, is the consummate team player and vocal leader. She has made steady improvement over the course of her career and was playing her best volleyball at the conclusion of practice this past spring. Last season she played in 19 matches (almost exclusively along the back row) and totaled 17 digs. Harris is the only Big Ten volleyball player (with more than two semesters of college credit) with a cumulative 4.0 grade-point average.

"Sarina has always been a good defensive player, but she really improved her passing and front row play during the spring," Vrazel says. "The last few weeks she really started to click. Sarina has really done a great job as a leader and has been more than willing to set the example on the court, in the weight room and in the classroom."

Gibbons highlights the Boilermakers' 1997 recruiting class. She is an exceptional athlete and a well-rounded volleyball player who hits the ball as heavy as any college player. She was all-state and a unanimous all-area and all-conference selection her senior year. Gibbons also proved to be a workhorse, playing in every game of every match over her four-year high school career and not coming off the court at all her sophomore, junior and senior seasons. "I'm confident that Katie will see quite a lot of playing time as a freshman," Vrazel says. "She has excellent skills, is a solid passer and has a very quick arm. Katie is mature and is eager to bring her game to the next level."

The rightside position likely will be filled by 6-2 sophomore Kelly Colangelo, who played on the left side as a freshman. The former Volleyball Monthly Fab 50 pick got off to a fast start in her collegiate career, including being named to the Mortar Board Purdue Premier All-Tournament team in September, and wound up averaging 1.10 kills and 1.35 digs per game with 24 service aces (fourth on the team).

"Kelly is excited about making the move to the right side," Vrazel says. "She's a big block, a good passer and has good hands for setting, and we're working on her hitting the slide. The other thing that's great about Kelly is her unbridled enthusiasm."

Setter
The Boilermakers are fortunate to have two quality setters in senior Linda Menconi and sophomore Taryn Catlin (both 5-8), although Menconi may not be at full strength at the start after undergoing surgery for a second torn anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee this past May.

Menconi showed no ill effects last season from her first surgery conducted in April of 1996. She appeared in 30 matches, including 20 starts, and averaged 10.87 assists and 1.49 digs to go with 16 service aces. Menconi, who received the team's Coaches Award (for always giving 100 percent and doing whatever it takes to help the team), set a school record with 87 assists against Houston in September. "Unfortunately, Linda is questionable, at least early on, because of the setback with her second knee injury," Vrazel says. "But if anybody can come back, it's Linda. She is a very stable player for us and a quality leader, and we really need to have her back at least by the start of the Big Ten season."

Catlin is coming off a solid freshman campaign. She appeared in 25 matches overall and started Purdue's last 10 contests and 11 of the final 12. Catlin ranked 10th in the Big Ten with an average of 11.08 assists per game in conference matches. An offensive-minded setter, Catlin averaged 1.04 kills on a .302 hitting percentage. "Taryn is coming off an excellent spring season," Vrazel says. "She really made some huge strides and is really starting to feel comfortable. More than anything, she has developed physically with her strength and her speed. It's no secret that we are counting on Taryn to be there from the start."

Christi Kelsey, a 5-8 freshman, was recruited as a back row player and also will train as a rightside hitter and as a setter. She has outstanding ball control and is a true student of the game. Kelsey was all-state and academic all-state as a senior. "Christi has been training as a setter with her club team, so she will have some experience before she arrives," Vrazel says. "Initially, she will be used as a defensive specialist to take advantage of her superior ball-handling ability and calm presence on the court. She is as good a defensive player as I have ever seen."

Defensive Specialist
Sophomore Nicole Key (5-9) joined the Boilermakers as a walkon and provided steady play along the back row. She appeared in 29 matches and averaged 1.14 digs per game with 11 service aces. Key underwent knee tendon surgery during the offseason but is well on the road to recovery.

"Nicole is a solid passer and has improved her defensive range," Vrazel says. "She has the ability to impact a game with her backrow play. Nicole adds a lot to our team in terms of stability and leadership, as well."

The Schedule
The Boilermakers may want to add a AAA member to their travel party for the month of September. Three of the first four weeks of the season see Purdue traveling to Florida (Florida State Classic), Utah (Utah Classic) and North Carolina (Big Ten/ACC Challenge). The eighth-annual Mortar Board Purdue Premier, meanwhile, is set for Sept. 5-6 with Central Michigan, Indiana State and Syracuse. "There's no question that we will be tested early both by the travel and the opponents we play," Vrazel says. "I like the variety of teams at each of the tournaments because they will provide stiff competition, but they are matches that we will have the opportunity to win. I think the time on the road will be a positive in that it will allow the team to gel together."

Big Ten play begins the weekend of Sept. 26-27 with Indiana and Penn State paying visits to West Lafayette. In a word, Penn State is loaded and is the early favorite to capture the conference crown. Michigan State, Minnesota and Wisconsin will be in the hunt, and Ohio State cannot be overlooked. All five of those teams earned berths in the 1996 NCAA Tournament.

"Every year people talk about the Big Ten being even tougher than before, and that's the case again this season," Vrazel says. "The level of recruiting in this conference is phenomenal, so everybody seems to get stronger all the time. I have tried to figure out how I think the race is going to play out, but there's no way to do that. I do believe more of the teams that have been in the middle to lower half are beginning to make a push into the upper tier." Include the "new-look" Boilermakers as one of those teams making a move upward. And if they develop as planned and stay healthy, this determined group of players figures to be looking good.