Freshmen receiving “Baptism by fire”

In coach Bob Bertucci’s 13 seasons at Temple, he has never experienced a season like this.

The Owls have posted 20 or more wins in nine seasons and have earned four NCAA tournament bids, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2002.

But this year has been different for Bertucci.

The Owls own a 10-16 record after topping Villanova, Fordham and Rhode Island last week. Despite opening the season 4-13, the Owls top the Atlantic Ten Conference East Division with a 5-4 record.

In addition, Bertucci has 10 freshmen. Conversely, there is only one junior and two seniors.

“We’ve never had this many freshmen nor have we had to use this many freshmen in the starting lineup at any one time,” he said. “There’s no way to disguise the fact that we’re having a rebuilding year.”

But despite the struggles of this season, the team’s youth is very encouraging, especially the play of freshmen Yun Yi Zhang and Jacqueline Cowden.

“I think it’s very difficult to come in right out of high school,” Bertucci said. “We never expected to have them in so much.”

Cowden and Zhang have played in a combined 45 matches while starting 39.

Zhang was a member of the Chinese Youth National Team, but said the transition to America has been tough.

“I had to start very new,” she said. “If I play well, I don’t feel any pressure. If I make mistakes, I think too much.”

Zhang leads the Owls in kills with 367, ranks third with a .217 hitting percentage and fourth with 167 digs.

“She’s a pretty dominant player,” Bertucci said. “She’s a major contributor at the net.”

Cowden, who came from Danville, Calif., said the move to college is equally tough.

“There’s a lot more pressure to do well,” Cowden said. “The competition in high school was a lot less.

“At first it was really overwhelming,” she added. “It’s easier now. We definitely have improved a lot. We’re getting used to practice every day. After we got used to it, it has become a routine.”

Cowden leads the team with a .238 hitting percentage and 98 blocks.

“She doesn’t make a whole lot of errors,” Bertucci said.

Bertucci has never experienced a situation like this, but said he has no choice.

“We don’t have any choice, it’s baptism by fire,” Bertucci said. “In the short run, it’s been very challenging for everyone. As a group they’ve been supporting each other.”

Bertucci said he knows his freshmen can only improve and get better for the future. His goal for them is to “work on their fitness, so they’re going to get more mature as athletes, which will help elevate their game.”

Zhang and Cowden agree that the future looks bright despite a rebuilding season.

“We can play as a group for four years,” Zhang said. “We’re starting to learn things. We’ll have a lot of experience.”

“The best part about it is that because you’re together all the time you’re really close, we’re kind of like a family,” Cowden said.

The family, Bertucci said, will be together for a while.

“It’s great for our program in the long run,” he said. “The younger ones are going to be the backbone of this team for the next four years.”

Pete Dorchak can be reached at

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