Early grind for Warriors volleyball

If victories were more important than program development for Cal State Stanislaus volleyball coach Chris Difani, she might have scheduled a string of cupcakes for her rising team.

That wouldn't have served her 10 freshmen, though. It wouldn't have given her 10 returners, including five seniors, much satisfaction.

And it certainly wouldn't have prepared the Warriors for a grueling California Collegiate Athletic Association season.

Difani, the third-year coach, has had her team running from the start, with back-to-back tournaments and mid-week games even after league play began.

At 3-10, the Warriors have taken some lumps, but have held their ground. A handful of players are among league leaders and are looking forward to a long homestand.

Stanislaus plays host to Bethany University tonight at 7 in its final non-CCAA match of the season. Oakdale's Kara Hazen and Ripon's Brittany Frances play for the Bruins, an NAIA school in Scotts Valley.

"We have two freshman setters and a lot of freshman back row players," Difani said. "I felt like, if we're going to be anything in conference, they've got to know how tough it is."

The stacked schedule is paying off in small ways. The Warriors took No. 19 BYU Hawaii to five games at the Hawaii Invitational on Sept. 4. They rallied to beat Notre Dame de Namur after trailing by two games on Sept. 12.

Senior middle Caitlin Steffeck is 28 blocks away from overtaking Angie Tribble's school record of 290 from 1997-2000.

Senior outside hitter Debbie Vander Schaaf is 11th in the CCAA with 147 kills. Difani said Vander Schaaf has done an "amazing" job in a leadership role.

Freshmen Nicki Brown and Colleen Sullivan have taken over where All-CCAA setter Kayla Van Duyn left off. Brown has 223 assists to Sullivan's 218 and they're ranked seventh and eighth, respectively, in the league.

Difani said she read statistics to the players before practice Tuesday. It gives them more to shoot for, especially those with four years ahead.

"It fires up the girls," Difani said. "I think it's important for them to know where their teammates stand. It's going to be great for them to break a record of someone they know. The girls are so unselfish."

With the big gap in ages -- only one sophomore, one junior and the rest of the players either coming in or on their way out -- the willingness to work together has been important.

"The serve-receive is the best it's been since I've been there," Difani said. "They're still learning. I'm happy with who I brought in and with the players here, how they've improved."