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Things were beginning to look up for the Utah State volleyball program. Last season's team won seven matches, up from four wins the season before, and the club would only graduate three players. Then came the mid-summer firing of two-year coach Marlon Sano that prompted five 1993 starters to transfer out of the program.

A new interim coach, 26-year-old Leanne Zeek, was named Aug. 2, and she had to build the team that opens the 1994 season Thursday night at Loyola of Chicago in less than a month with only three letter-winners and four players with NCAA Division I experience - sophomore setter Kalei Arnold, senior middle hitter Tara Poppinga, senior outside hitter Stacey Blackburn and senior Shanna Gappmayer.Arnold, responsible for running the offense, missed all of the 1993 season with back problems and is coming off summer back surgery, but she did not miss any preseason practices and seems healthy.

The rest of the club comprises one sophomore (Gina Snarr) and seven freshmen (Lisa Behrens, Kelsey Clark, Jayme Hendrian, Kacey Peterson, Jennifer Rumold, Kaye Shaw and Charlotte Watley).

Obviously, it's going to be a trying year, especially in the volleyball-strong Big West Conference with nonleague games against BYU, Utah and Idaho State, and the Aggies' record is not likely to be a true measuring stick of their progress. "We will represent Utah State to the best of our abilities," says Zeek.

"One thing we do have going for us," she says, "is that we are so young most of the players don't know enough to be scared."

She expects to have some strengths. One is height in the middle, with 5-foot-11 Poppinga, 6-2 Rumold, 6-1 Snarr and 5-10 Shaw. Another is athleticism. "What we lack in experience will be counterbalanced in athletic ability," Zeek says. Hendrian, from Idaho Falls, is the best overall athlete, Zeek says.

The rest of the starters are Arnold, Poppinger, Gappmayer, Blackburn and Rumold.

After their match with Chicago-Loyola tonight, the Aggies stay in Chicago for Loyola's weekend tournament. Friday, USU will meet Connecticut. Saturday finds the Ags playing Wisconsin-Green Bay and Furman.

"Playing Loyola-Chicago and then the tournament will give us a chance to get our feet wet with teams more comparable to us," Zeek says. "With such a young team it will be good to not have to jump right into a grueling Big West schedule."