By Bryan Haines, UNLV Sports Information
Entering their first year under the guidance of new head coach Allison Keeley will be a youthful Rebel squad with five sophomores and eight freshmen who could see significant playing time. Helping to ease the burden on the young Rebels will be a trio of three seniors, Nina Franchini, Nicki King and Tarin Keith, who bring a wealth of experience and talent to the court.
UNLV will look to the experience of Senior Tarin Keith at the outside hitter position to pace the offense. Sophomore Michelle Banks played well as a freshman last season and will be looked upon to contribute more this season. With four newcomers as well, outside hitter may be one of UNLV's deepest positions on the court.
Keith will return to the left side where she finished the 2003 season with 206 kills and tallied 154 digs. Banks bookends Keith on the the right side. Banks played in 27 matches last season and had 135 kills and with 164 digs.
Sophomore Kandace Scarlett and freshmen Maria Aladjova, Brittani Lumsden and Kortney Reid will add depth and youth to the outside.
Looking to compete for the middle blocker starting position will be sophomore Lauren Miramontes, junior college transfer Mariana Pencheva and freshman Ashley Flahaven. Miramontes played in nine games as a freshman, seeing limited action and finished the season with 18 kills. Pencheva had a strong junior college career at Midland Junior College in Midland, Tex., earning all-conference honors last season.
Nicki King, who is the all time assist leader in Rebel history with 3,197, returns for her final season at UNLV. It will be up to King to run the offense and be a leader for the young Rebels. Last season King had a fine all-around season, collecting 169 digs, 47 kills and 54 blocks to go along with 1,119 assists.
Sophomore Tamara Kauliakamoa played in 20 games last year and posted 109 assists. She will compete with freshmen Liana Capurro and Marisa Okamoto for the role of backing up King.
Nina Franchini returns for the second straight year as the starter in the libero position. Franchini led the team with 263 digs in 2003. Backing her up will be sophomore Kristin Koochi, who came off the bench last season and finished with 131 digs. Two freshmen, Nicole Okada and Jada Walker, will add depth to the libero position.
The young Rebels and their new head coach will have the luxury of opening the 2004 season at home, hosting the UNLV Classic, beginning with Washington State. UNLV will also play San Jose State before hitting the road for tournaments at Cal State Northridge and Fresno State.
Once those three tournaments are over, the Rebels will begin Mountain West Conference play with three conference matches at home against San Diego State, Colorado State and Wyoming. The Colorado State match will provide a good test for the Rebels, as the Rams begin the season ranked No. 11 in the country by USA Today/College Sports TV. UNLV's first conference road games are against Utah and BYU. UNLV's final home match of the 2004 season is against in-state rival Nevada, Reno on Nov. 7.
"I think it will be easier on us to open up at home rather than on the road," Keeley said. "We have a solid road schedule that will get us ready for conference play, where we will play some of the top teams in the country."