One just has to look at last season’s Trappers to find an example of a successful freshmen-dominant team.
Northwest entered the Region IX Tournament as the No. 1 seed after going a perfect 12-0 in conference (22-11 overall) but was eliminated after a 1-2 tourney run that ended its hopes of advancing to nationals.
The expectations haven’t changed for the Trappers, who enter the upcoming season ranked just outside the nation’s top 20, behind Region IX teams Western Wyoming (16) and Casper (19).
“I think that the goal of any college-level athletic program is to get better every year,” Pohlman said. “I do believe we have athletes that are capable of (winning a national championship).”
One of those athletes is 2012 Region IX Player of the Year Ana Jakovljevic.
The sophomore from Valvejo, Serbia will lead a potent offensive attack from the outside position. Jakovljevic led all of NJCAA Division One with a 4.69 kills/set rate and 516 total kills.
But while Jakovljevic’s skill is unquestioned, she is only one piece of the puzzle.
“You can’t play anything individually” said sophomore outside hitter Felicity (Filly) Zegarelli, who was third in Region IX with a 2.78 kills/set rate. “You can’t make three contacts with one person. It’s a very synergistic sport.”
The team-first attitude being embraced by the Trappers is necessary after an offseason filled with turnover has left the team with a lot of question marks.
Pohlman said sophomores Jakovljevic, Zegarelli, Mikaela Heble and Kayla Van Hee are the only players firmly planted at a position. The rest of the lineup will work itself out as versatile freshmen grow into more defined roles.
“We have more questions this year than we usually do because we were honored with having three multi-positional individuals,” Pohlman said.
Freshmen Kristin Bailey, Kimber Call and Inoa Fields provide talent and depth all over the court.
“Those three fill multiple spots and they do a good job of what they do,” Pohlman said.
Freshmen, who outnumber sophomores eight to five, will have to provide an immediate impact to fill the shoes left empty by both expected and unexpected losses.
Gone are graduated players Katie Burnett, Becky Downs, Taylor Harris, Allyson Mahon and Olivia Rogers.
Four freshmen from last year’s squad will also be absent this season. All-Region setter Triniti Taylor and Ashlee Ryan left volleyball for personal reasons, while Ainsley Oates is pursuing a track career as a walk-on at University of Northern Colorado after tearing her shoulder last volleyball season.
“Yea, we lost some talents but I definitely think we gained more (for) this coming season,” Zegarelli said.
Zegarelli is one of the team’s early-season leaders. A fierce competitor, Zegarelli said she has put it on herself to keep the team’s intensity level high.
“I just make sure we keep that aggressiveness on and off the court,” she said.
Taylor took over as the team’s starting setter last year after Heble suffered a concussion. Heble returns this year as a sophomore ready to reclaim her role on the team.
“When you go through an injury during (the) season you do miss a lot of those reps and you miss time on the court, so making it up in the offseason was crucial to getting where I am now,” Heble said.
Pohlman said Heble put in extra time this offseason to come back strong.
“She came back for summer school to make sure she was prepared,” Pohlman said. “She’s made huge strides and I think that she’s going to fill that gap.
“She’s truly a winner a heart.”
The graduations of starting middle blockers Downs and Rogers is exacerbated by a knee injury to Nicolette Bloomer, a 6-2 middle blocker who will spend the 2013-14 season as a redshirt sophomore and student assistant on the coaching staff while she recovers from knee surgery.
Downs led last year’s Trappers with a .34 kill percentage (25th in nation). She also anchored the front line defense with a team-high 127 blocks. Rogers was fourth on the team in kills and second in blocks with 102.
Pohlman said the loss of Downs and Rogers, who were productive two-way players, made recruiting middle blockers who could play right away a must this offseason.
“Obviously it was a priority, and we knew it even a year before,” he said.
Pohlman recruited three freshmen middles that will join sophomore Nicoleta (Nico) Titonea, who recorded 53 kills in limited playing time last year on the right side. Her role will likely increase this season as she shifts spots.
“We moved Nico to the middle and trained her in the offseason to play middle and right side, as opposed to just right side,” Pohlman said.
Trapper opponents could focus their attention on the lethal outside duo of Jakovljevic and Zegarelli if the new middles are unable to keep defenses honest.
But Heble said she’s been impressed with what she’s seen from the middle position so far.
“We’ve got a lot of talent in the middle and I think that’s going to help with our offense in terms of distributing the block on the other side and giving our outsides some more freedom to do what they can do,” she said.
In the back row, a competition to fill the shoes of last season’s defensive specialists Burnett and Mahon (who finished the season first and third in digs, respectively) is taking shape.
Van Hee is a defensive specialist vying to be the team’s libero.
“There’s five of us fighting for the libero position,” Van Hee said. “That’s ultimately what every DS (defensive specialist) wants.”
Van Hee dug 154 attacks last season, good for fifth on the team, and averaged 1.9 digs per set. The Centennial, Colo., native said she hopes to anchor the Trappers’ back row as Burnett and Mahon did before her.
“I really looked up to them during offseason and coach really just taught me what he taught them,” Van Hee said. “So as long as I follow what he’s saying I can follow in their footsteps.”
Now in a position to teach, Van Hee has tried to make life easier on the incoming freshmen.
“I’m trying to help them not make mistakes that we (the sophomores) made,” said Van Hee, who Zegarelli called the team’s heart.
If she is not chosen as the team’s libero, Van Hee knows the position will be in good hands.
“No matter who it’s going to be, it’s going to be well deserved,” she said.
Pohlman said having options at every position will allow him to “substitute one (player) for the other and not lose intensity, integrity of the play.”
The to-be-determined rotation has also left Pohlman unsure what his offensive formation will look like.
“Unfortunately that’s not something we get to know yet,” he said.
Rather than try to force his players into a pre-determined offense, he said he will let his personnel dictate what offense they run.
Heble said it’s tough for a setter not to know what the offense will look like around her, but understands patience is in the best interest of the team.
“Yeah, you’d love to know but (not knowing) keeps the competition between each other,” Heble said. “We got a lot of girls capable of playing almost every position.”
Zegarelli said the players just have to take care of what’s in their control, and follow their coaches’ plan.
“We have a lot of trust in our coaches,” she said. “In the end I know it’s going to work out well.”
The Trappers travel to Twin Falls, Idaho, today (Thursday) and will play in the College of Southern Idaho Tournament Friday and Saturday.
Northwest’s home opener against Rocky Mountain College is at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Region IX play begins with a home game against Central Wyoming College at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10.