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Serve it Up: Lutes Open at Puget Sound Tournament

Blair Bjorkman

SERVE IT UP: Pacific Lutheran serves up the 2012 volleyball season on Friday with a pair of matches at the Puget Sound Premier Tournament. The Lutes play St. Olaf at 1 p.m. and Southwestern (Texas) at 5 p.m. at the UPS Fieldhouse. On Saturday, PLU is back at it with a 1 p.m. match against UC Santz Cruz, followed by a 5 p.m. encounter with the tournament host Puget Sound Loggers.

RECENT RESULTS AT THE PREMIER: PLU will makes its second consecutive appearance - and its third in the past four years - at the Puget Sound Premier Tournament. Last year, the Lutes were 3-1 with wins over Wisconsin-Stout, Whitworth and UC Santa Cruz before a loss against Puget Sound. In 2009, the Lutes were 3-1 with victories over St. Benedict and Simpson in addition to a split of two matches against UPS.

PRESEASON COACHES POLL: The first-place votes were spread among four teams, but it was Pacific Lutheran that received the most overall points and the top spot in the Northwest Conference preseason coaches poll. The Lutes, who finished 13-3 and in second place in the conference last season, received five first-place votes and a total of 65 points from among the nine head coaches. Defending conference champion Whitworth received two first-place votes and 54 points, followed by Puget Sound with one top vote and 50 points. Lewis & Clark got the other first-place vote and a total of 44 points.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE LUTES: Coming off of two consecutive second-place finishes in the Northwest Conference, the Lutes figure to again compete for a NWC championship. That has become a regular expectation under head coach Kevin Aoki, who starts his 17th season at the helm of his alma mater's volleyball program. During Aoki's tenure, PLU has won six conference titles (1999, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and 2009) and has posted a 282-137 overall record. "We should be right in the hunt (for the Northwest Conference title) again," Aoki says. "Our depth is better than it has been, and we're a lot more versatile, especially across the front line."

Anchoring the front line is junior middle blocker Bethany Huston (Kennewick, Wash. / Kamiakin HS), who led all Division III volleyball players in 2011 with 1.54 blockers per set. Her season stats were impressive: 142 total blocks (20 solo blocks, 122 block assists), 2.21 kills per set with 203 total kills and a .280 hitting percentage. Sophomore Amy Wooten (Gresham, Ore. / Gresham HS) got valuable playing time last year, predominately as a right side hitter, and she will join Huston on an imposing front line. Junior Becca Holtgeerts (Everett, Wash. / Cascade HS) is among the most improved players and will help in the middle and also as a right side hitter when needed. Chelsea Nelson (Everett, Wash. / Cascade HS), a sophomore who saw lots of action as an outside hitter last year, will move into a role as a right side hitter. Juniors Allison Wood (Langley, Wash. / South Whidbey HS) and Haley Urdahl (Oregon City, Ore. / Clackamas HS) and senior Kelsey Pacolt (Anchorage, Alaska / A.J. Dimond HS) are all ready to play a prominent role as the primary outside hitters. "We have a lot of depth at those positions," Aoki says.

That depth means a change in PLU's attacking options. In recent seasons the Lutes depended primarily on a couple of main hitters - Beth Hanna and Kelsie Moore on the outside, Kelcy Joynt and Erin Bremond on the inside are standouts who come to mind - to provide the offense. "I think we're going to spread the wealth around more this year," Aoki says. "That puts less pressure on any one player to do it all, and puts more pressure on the opposing defense." To that end, Aoki says he would be surprised to see any one player with more than 15 kills in a match.

Running the PLU attack is sophomore Samantha North (Gig Harbor, Wash. / Gig Harbor HS), the AVCA West Region Freshman of the Year and a First Team All-Northwest Conference and All-Region honoree in 2011. "Sam is more knowledgeable and has one year of experience setting (at the college level)," Aoki says. "She no longer has to think about what to do, she just does it. She's probably one of our better defensive players, too."

The back row defense is anchored by senior libero and four-year starter Blair Bjorkman (Puyallup, Wash. / Puyallup HS), and sophomore defensive specialist Amber Aguiar (Vancouver, Wash. / Skyview HS). On the back row, says Aoki, the Lutes "are as good as anybody with Amber and Blair."

With the focus on developing individual talent, taking advantage of the team's depth, and in order to keep players healthy, Aoki plans on spreading around playing time during the first two weeks of the season. Following the Puget Sound Premier Tournament, the Lutes will travel to Colorado Springs, Colo., for four more matches at the Colorado College Classic.

"By the time conference rolls around we will have a pretty good idea of where we are as a team and who can play regardless of the circumstances and who we play," Aoki says.

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