Clovis News: Sports

Defending champ Sunbirds work to knit new team

The standard has been set, even if it seems quite high.

Another national championship.

That's what the Fresno Pacific volleyball team must reach.

That's what the Sunbirds strive for year after year. They've won back-to-back NAIA national titles and have become the most dominating, most imposing team in the central San Joaquin Valley.

"I'm not going to lie," senior Tiffany Marinos said. "Winning a third straight national title would be nice."

Even in so-called rebuilding seasons -- as this year appears to be with the addition of 11 players -- the Sunbirds know what they have to do.

The Sunbirds (2-0), already tabbed No. 1 in the NAIA preseason rankings, might not always want to acknowledge this ultimate goal, since such ambitious thinking could set up major disappointment later.

But they understand their role in making Fresno Pacific a dynasty: keep winning and keep bringing home national titles.

"We brought it up early in one of our team meetings because it's the pink elephant in the room that no one was acknowledging," said Fresno Pacific coach Dennis Janzen, in his 25th season. "Once we've tasted something like a national championship, we don't want to lose that.

"Yes, another national championship is our goal. But the focus, the emphasis, always is on improvement and getting better. We have the talent to possibly win the national championship. But we have to keep getting better and develop team chemistry to do it."

The development of a setter will be the first step toward another championship run. Shu Liu, a four-year All-American and two-time American Volleyball Coaches Association National Player of the Year from China, ran Fresno Pacific's multi-dimensional, fast-attacking offense the past four years.

Looking to replace Liu is a trio of freshman newcomers in Emily Carroll, Betina Schmidt and Erica Adachi.

"It's a challenge," said junior middle blocker Lisa Shilling, who is expected to be the Sunbirds' primary attacking option. "Each setter is different. Each has a set that's their favorite, that they're best at.

"We want to mesh together, get our timing down. When you can do that, it's like perfection."

Fresno Pacific lost eight players in all, including top hitter Thais Julio, and returns just five players.

Marinos, the only senior, said she was confused during the first week of practice just trying to learn all of her teammates' names, let alone their abilities.

"There's still a lot of pressure, but it's different now," Marinos said. "Last year, when we were the defending champs, we returned most of the team, so we were expected to win it again. This year, we're kind of starting over with so many new players. I just want us to play to the best of our ability."

To ease the transition, Janzen filled his roster with tall and athletic players, including key additions Michelle Johnson, a 6-foot-1 junior from Sacramento City College, Lauren Albertson, a 6-foot-3 freshman from Clovis West High, and Martina Gregusova, a 6-foot-1 outside hitter who was a freshman All-Southeastern Conference selection in 2006 when she played at Mississippi State.

"You can see the talent is here," said sophomore newcomer Karlie Houston, who played at Fresno State in 2006 then took the past two years off before picking up the sport again. "As someone new to the program, you can immediately feel this high level of excellence you're expected to perform to -- that you want to perform to." Added Johnson: "A lot of us came to Fresno Pacific to be in a situation where you could compete for a national title."

Janzen cautioned that developing a title-contending team will be a season-long process, and that chemistry and timing will dictate how fast the Sunbirds come together.

"We're going to do everything we can to keep winning until we're finally knocked out," Janzen said. "We want to keep getting better as the season goes on. And if we're the last ones standing, we just won another national title."