With five players gone because of graduation, including three-time All-American setter Nellie Spicer, the No. 9 UCLA women’s volleyball team began its preseason last week in Hawaii with some serious lineup questions.

With junior outside hitter Dicey McGraw’s steady .379 clip thus far this season and the return of redshirt senior Kaitlin Sather, who sat out all last season because of shoulder surgery, some of the questions have been addressed.

“To have that experience come back into the gym will be really helpful,” coach Andy Banachowski said of Sather. “Obviously, we have got more depth with her now being able to play, so it’s a great situation to have Kaitlin back.”

With some of the Bruins’ issues being resolved, they will begin the Alexis Park Classic in Las Vegas, Friday at 7 p.m. against UNLV.

“It’s going to be a tough tournament because we play once tomorrow night, and then we play two matches on Saturday, and then we fly out,” Sather said.

The tournament will conclude Saturday with a 10 a.m. match against Loyola Marymount and a 4:30 p.m. match against Idaho.

During the two-day tournament, the Bruins’ primary focus is to solidify the large gap left by Spicer.

After a competition between sophomore Stephanie Nucci and freshman Lauren Cook for the starting setter job, Cook impressed coaches and teammates and has been starting at setter.

“She’s been really great about trying to make it work,” Sather said. “Coming in as a freshman is really hard. We’ve all been used to one setter coming in (this season).”

Cook has played in every match this season and has recorded 92 set assists.

“We had good competition between Lauren and Stephanie at the beginning of the season,” Banachowski said. “Now Lauren has taken over that role, and all the players will be able to get really comfortable spending most of their time with Lauren. She does a great job of delivering a consistent ball out there and working well with the hitters.”

Banachowski said the transition has not been rough, but different nonetheless.

“It’s been a lot smoother than I expected,” Banachowski said.

For Sather, who came in the same recruiting class as Spicer, Cook presents a different style.

“She is really peppy, really enthusiastic, really optimistic,” Sather said. “Her greatest quality is that she’s really wanting to adjust and really wanting to learn how to make us better.”

For Cook, immediately starting for a top 10 team is a welcome challenge.

“I loved it,” Cook said on starting in her first NCAA appearance. “I guess most people would be nervous about it, but it was just an opportunity.”

Despite major shifts at the outside hitter and setter positions, the Bruins will be cycling the same three middle blockers as last year.

Banachowski said that sophomores Amanda Gil, Sara Sage and Katie Camp will split time at the two middle blocker positions this season.

Last season, Gil and Camp were both first-teamers for the Pac-10 all-freshman team, and Sage earned honorable mention.

Friday represents a pair of firsts for the Bruins. They will be playing their first ever-match in Las Vegas and will be facing UNLV for the first time.

The Rebels split their first two matches of the season with a sweep at the hands of No. 8 Florida and a 4-1 win over Valparaiso.

Loyola Marymount is entering the tournament undefeated with sweeps over Grambling State and Arkansas and a four-set win over Texas Christian.

Loyola Marymount has only defeated the Bruins once, in the first round of the 1986 NCAA Tournament.

Idaho is entering the Alexis Park Classic after a 2-1 season-opening tournament, with wins over Appalachian State and Lamar and a loss at the hands of tournament host Cal State Fullerton.