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LEADER OF THE PACK: New Eastern Oregon University volleyball coach Amy Spruiell talks to Beyonce Knowles during a recent practice. Spruiell will try to resuscitate a program that has been at the bottom of the Cascade Collegiate Conference the past two seasons.  (For The Observer/DAN JONES).
LEADER OF THE PACK: New Eastern Oregon University volleyball coach Amy Spruiell talks to Beyonce Knowles during a recent practice. Spruiell will try to resuscitate a program that has been at the bottom of the Cascade Collegiate Conference the past two seasons. (For The Observer/DAN JONES).

Dan Jones

For The Observer

The difference between optimism and reality is not obscured by Eastern Oregon University's new volleyball coach, Amy Spruiel.

She knows very well she has just adopted a team that was 4-18 overall and 4-14 in conference play last season under Ryan Platt. She expects to hear the Mountaineers described as "rebuilding."

"Everyone knows that," Spruiell said. "In terms of how many wins or losses we might get, it is always a guessing game at this point. You do the best you can with what you have."

And the playoff picture for 2005?

"It would be a goal to make them in about three years. Two years would be nice," Spruiell said.

At NCAA Division II Western State Colorado, Spruiell was a three-time all-conference performance selection as a player.

She has coached at Fort Hays State University (Kan.), Seattle University (Wash.) and the University of South Dakota.

Spruiell said she loves the Northwest and instantly applied for the position when it opened at EOU.

In a fresh and untried Cascade Collegiate Conference, with champ Southern Oregon and powerhouse Northwest, her work will be cut out for her.

For Eastern, the wins have been few and sometimes far between, with their last CCC playoff berth coming in 2001.

But with Spruiell, the "Out of Order'' sign that's been hanging on the program since the start of the 21st century is preparing to come down.

The atmosphere is different, a new and intense approach is being implemented and a less- than-perfect scenario might turn out better than anticipated.

Spruiell said it begins with hard work.

"It starts with our practices being very demanding. Pre-season might be more demanding than any of these girls have seen," Spruiell said. "There will be lots of hours in the gym. I want to push them to their limits."

The services of former all-region, first-team all-Cascade Conference star and Mountaineer linchpin Kaki McLean will not be available this time around.

She graduated last year after a hugely successful collegiate career. However, the squad has players who have at least some experience under their belts and a backup of fresh prospects eager to prove themselves.

Reliable junior Jana Brotherton and a handful of others have particularly caught the attention of Spruiell.

"Jana Brotherton is going to be a very important part of the team. Jennifer Luatua could do some good things. Megan Garber-Cody might be an impact player," Spruiell said.

Luatua, of Everett, Wash., was a three-time all-district and all-state competitor.

Senior setter Mary Branch will add leadership and veteran experience to a lineup that is far from set in stone.

"The starting unit is truly up in the air," Spruiell said.

Spruiell said the primary focus on the court in 2005 will be blocking and the defensive system in back row, and setters like Branch will be instrumental to her plans.

Other 2005 players include Shyra Merila of Astoria and Big Bend Community College junior transfer Jolene George. In her senior year, Merila was selected first-team all-Cowapa League and named the Cowapa League Player of the Year.

George registered 79 kills and hit .205 in 40 games at Big Bend.

The squad's future is not entirely clear, but the preparation to face it is.

"I don't know if we will make it to .500 or not," Spruiell said. "We are going to be breaking down every basic skill. We might lose games early on because of it but I think in the long run it will help us become a better team and win games."

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