Eastern Oregon University’s Stefani Sorensen returns for her junior season after being named to the first-team all-Cascade Conference team last year. (Casey Kellas/The Observer)
High expectations surround the Eastern Oregon University volleyball team as it prepares for the season opener Aug. 22.
The Mountaineers are coming off the best season in program history. EOU finished 23-7 a year ago and were 14-4 in the Cascade Collegiate Conference.
But Eastern Oregon got eliminated by the College of Idaho in the conference tournament, ending its bid for a spot in the national tournament.
Head coach Kaki McLean-Morehead and her players have kept that experience fresh in their minds.
“We kind of expect to have a good season, so we are trying to work up to that expectation,” junior outside hitter Stefani Sorensen said after practice Monday. “We’re going to nationals, there’s no question about it this year. The last two years we have been inches away, so we’re going this year.”
The Mountaineers return two all-conference first-teamers from last season in Sorensen and junior Casey Loper. The Mountaineers also return Bobbi Sumpter, Taylor Stewart and Karly Stack who all have plenty of experience of going through the grind of the CCC.
The difference with this year’s team, however, is that the end goal is much bigger.
“Our expectations are higher than they were last year,” Loper said. “Last season we wanted to end in the top two (in the conference), and this year we want to finish first. We don’t want our goal to be lower than what we really want.”
According to McLean-Morehead, the Mountaineers are going to be a strong offensive team this year that will pride itself on attacking and
“Our two all-conference returners are two of our best leaders,” McLean-Morehead said. “They hit the ball hard and they have that hunger and that expectation to win. We’re going to make (teams) work to put the ball away on us.”
The Mountaineers do have one hole to shore up.
Gone is libero Kaitlyn Duncan, who was named to the all-CCC first team last year and finished her career with more than 1,000 digs.
But McLean-Morehead thinks she has the players to fill the void.
“She will be a huge hole for us to fill, as a leader especially,” McLean-Morehead said. “But, I have two great kids who I think will do a great job in that position this year.”
Those two kids are Jessalynn Smith, a transfer from Walla Walla Community College, and Katie Keeney who has been with the Mountaineers at other positions.
The Mountaineers open the season at the Cascade-Frontier Red Lion Challenge in Spokane, Wash., Aug. 22.
EOU will face Montana Tech, Montana State-Northern, Montana Western, Carroll College and the University of Great Falls.
McLean-Morehead, as well as the players, know that the Mountaineers are capable of reaching their lofty goals this year, and it starts in Spokane next week.
“(It’s going to take) consistency,” McLean-Morehead said. “And the expectation that we are the best and we have to work for it. No game is going to be easy. We just have to outwork every opponent that we come up against.”
“We just have to work as a team,” Sorensen said. “We know we have the talent, we just need to work as a team and figure out how to make everything work.”