By Michelle Gardner
When opportunity knocked, both Sara Rice and Ashtin Hall answered the door. Now the two former Yucaipa High School standouts are starters for a Cal State San Bernardino volleyball team expected to contend for the Division II national championship.
The Coyotes, 27-3 a year ago, open the 2008 campaign this week, hosting a six-team tournament that starts tonight at Coussoulis Arena. The No. 4 Coyotes open against reigning national champion and current No. 1 Concordia-St. Paul (Minn.) at 7:30 p.m.
“We’re very excited about our potential,” Coach Kim Cherniss says. “We have high expectations. We have a great core of returning players and we have some talented freshmen. Maybe the best class we have had since I’ve been here.”
The veteran cast is bolstered by the two former Citrus Belt League standouts.
Rice, a 6-foot senior middle blocker, arrived in 2005. She had planned to attend Golden West Community College but when Portala George went down with a knee injury, Cherniss needed another backup.
Rice was going to redshirt but when a second middle blocker also sustained a knee injury, that plan changed. She ended up playing a handful of matches which set the stage for a stellar sophomore campaign and second-team All-Conference honors.
Then came an even better junior season in which she earned first-team All-Conference and Pacific West Region honorable mention honors. She was fourth on the team in kills (190) but boasted an impressive attack percentage of .384 as well as a team-high 75 blocks.
“My confidence has just grown each season,” said Rice, a 21-year-old business major. “When I played some as a freshman it made me realize I could compete at that level.”
A key injury also paved the way for Hall, whose opportunity could not have come in a more pressure-packed situation.
The 5-11 junior outside hitter committed to the Coyotes in November of her senior year of high school. She also considered Division I UC Riverside and NAIA Point Loma but opted for Cal State after touring all three schools and considering the facilities and level of play at each.
She didn’t choose Cal State because her former high school teammate was there, but called it an “added bonus.”
Hall played little during her true freshman season in 2006. The time she did see came against lesser foes.
Then Lisa Dogonyaro, the lone senior on the squad, sustained a knee injury in the regular season finale at Cal State Los Angeles. Hall went from being a seldom-used sub to a starter on a team with national championship aspirations.
“I remember that match when she got hurt. My whole frame of mind changed,” said Hall, 20. “It was definitely very stressful but I tried to take it as a chance to prove myself.”
Other teams went right at the untested rookie but Hall was up for the challenge.
“You never know what is going to happen,” Cherniss said. “You have to be prepared for that situation and that comes with working hard in practice. It’s my job as a coach to see that my players are ready when they’re called on.”
Hall started 29 of 30 matches as a sophomore and recorded 235 kills, including a career-high 17 in the Pacific Region final against Western Washington. She was rewarded with a spot on the all-conference second team.
The Coyotes will be looking for their sixth conference title in eight years and have advanced to the regional championship match nine straight years. Last year’s loss was one of the most disappointing because it came in three straight games on their home floor to a team it had already beaten during the season.
Both players say the Coyotes didn’t go into that matchup with the same intensity they would have had the opponent been long-time nemsis UC San Diego, which lost to Western Washington in the semifinal.
“It was a humbling experience,” Rice said. “They took advantage of our weaknesses in a way no other team did.”
Added Hall: “We have to try and put it aside but at the same time learn from it so we don’t make the same mistake again if we’re in that position.”