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    Aug. 14, 1997

    1997 Season Brings Renewed Optimism and Confidence

    The Northwestern volleyball program enters the 1997 season with a renewed sense of optimism and confidence. Success builds from the top, in this case with new head coach Kevin Renshler, who spent the past four years at the helm of the volleyball program at Kent State University.

    "I'm very excited about the possibilities here at Northwestern," said Renshler. "The bottom line is that I'm here to win Big Ten Championships. That's my goal. The most impressive thing about this team that I've seen so far (since being hired in March) is their commitment to get volleyball to the same level of excellence achieved by the other athletics teams, including academics, here at Northwestern."

    Renshler inherits a young, but experienced, team. Ten letterwinners return this season, including five players who started the majority of NU's matches last season. However, not one player on the NU roster has more than two years of playing experience at the college level.

    Unlike Wildcat teams of the past, the 1997 version will employ a much more aggressive posture, one which Renshler refers to as "run-and-gun volleyball." This style of play quickens the pace and is extremely exciting for fans.

    "Run-and-gun volleyball is much like basketball in that it is very fast paced and puts a lot of pressure on the other team," said Renshler. "There's 30 feet of net on the volleyball court and we're going to try and find a way to make the opponent have to cover all 30 feet."

    A major addition to this year's squad will be the return of middle blocker Sharon Fisk, who redshirted last season after breaking her hand during fall practice. Fisk set career highs in every major category as a sophomore, including finishing second on the 1995 team with 214 kills.

    The return of Fisk should take some of the attacking and blocking responsibility off juniors Melissa Doan and Jessica Holloway, allowing them to move to the outside and play positions which better suit their natural abilities. Holloway finished second on the team in kills last season, has collected more than 300 kills and 300 digs in both of her seasons at NU, and is regarded as one of the hardest hitters in the Big Ten. Doan was team MVP last season, leading the Wildcats in hitting percentage and blocks and finishing third in kills. She also was the only Wildcat to play in all 120 games last season.

    "Having Sharon back in the lineup will be a huge lift for this team," said Renshler. "Having her at the net is important because it will free up Melissa and Jessica to attack the ball much more than last year. They will have much more free reign to attack along the net."

    Joining Fisk in the middle will be sophomores Kitty Owen and Leah Ackerman. Owen led the Wildcats with 56 block assists last year and finished second on the team with 67 total blocks. Ackerman played in all 33 matches a year ago, and is one of the best athletes on the team. She registered 39 blocks in 72 games coming off the bench as a freshman.

    Outside hitter is another position where the Wildcats should be stronger in 1997. In addition to Doan and Holloway, junior Sarah Strauss, sophomores Jennifer Zagorski and Jennifer Higgins and freshman Carmen Burbach should give the Wildcats a much more potent offensive attack.

    Zagorski led the Wildcats in kills with 367 during her freshman campaign, while her 3.28 kills per game was the ninth-best season in school history. Higgins missed several matches due to injury last year, but still managed to collect 21 blocks and 20 aces in her 23 matches. Strauss finished fourth on the team in hitting last season while Burbach is a prospect who was recruited by many of the top schools in the country. Renshler expects Burbach to step in immediately and seriously contend for a starting spot.

    "One thing I really like about this team is there is not one person who stood out above the others this spring; they were all impressive," said Renshler. "This team is not a case of the have and have nots. Everyone's importance on the team is equal. We don't have one impact player, but that could work in our favor this year."

    The starting setter position will once again be held by Liz Renius, who enters her junior year with 2,054 career assists, only the fifth player in team history to break the 2,000-assist mark. Renius also was one of the best servers in the Big Ten last year, finishing third in the conference in aces per game. Sophomore Karen Church and freshman Jennifer Armson will backup Renius at setter.

    "I think our style of play will help Liz immensely," said Renshler. "She has a terrific volleyball mind and can now be much more creative on the court."

    The 1997 schedule opens Aug. 29-30 at the North Carolina State Wolfpack Invitational, featuring Akron, Georgetown and NC State. Wildcat junior Melissa Doan gets a chance to play in front of her hometown crowd in Kalamazoo, Mich., on Sept. 3 when the Wildcats travel to Western Michigan. The home opener is slated for Sept. 5-6 when NU hosts the Evanston Holiday Inn/Wildcat Challenge. This year's tournament features Kansas, Virginia Tech and Florida. The Gators went to the NCAA Final Four last year while NU head coach Kevin Renshler spent one season as an assistant in Gainesville before taking over at Kent.

    The Wildcats then face off against intrastate-rival Northern Illinois followed by the Chicago Challenge against DePaul, Loyola-Chicago and Illinois-Chicago. Northwestern won last year's Chicago Challenge at Loyola. After two weeks off, the Wildcats open Big Ten competition Sept. 26 at Iowa. The Big Ten home opener will be Oct. 5 against Michigan State.

    "The season will be a challenge for us right off the bat, facing three schools which are well established and all on the rise in their conferences," said Renshler. "We face several regional rivals as well. Plus, anytime we face someone inside the state of Illinois, especially the Chicagoland area, it's for bragging rights. Once we enter conference play, you're talking about some of the best teams in the country."

    Renshler is very straightforward with his goals and expectations for the Wildcat volleyball program in 1997.

    "I want our team to worry about the execution of each play and do so to the best of their ability," said Renshler. "We're going to go into every situation with the attitude that we're going to be the best. If we do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. It has to be known throughout the Big Ten that you will have to earn everything against us. Northwestern will no longer give you anything."