A good time to gauge the strength of a team is when the bad times start to pile up.
For the Tulane volleyball squad, a 12-3 start to the 2018 season indicated that third-year coach Jim Barnes and his roster — one packed with underclassmen — had command of the plan, which was to develop as a whole and learn to frustrate the opposition with a balanced attack.
But on the eve of American Athletic Conference play, sophomore right side Kristen Thompson was lost to a knee injury.
The Green Wave lost four straight matches and a chunk of confidence in the wake of adjusting the roster, but Plan B is getting an “A” grade as Tulane has broken off 11 straight victories and stands 23-7, 11-4 in the AAC.
Next up is a tough match at second-place Cincinnati (22-7, 12-3), a huge outcome for both teams since Cincinnati is No. 24 in the NCAA RPI and Tulane is No. 67. Tulane beat Cincinnati in four in New Orleans on October 28, dealing the Bearcats one of their three AAC losses while “holding” Jordan Thompson to 19 kills. Makala Heidelberg had 15 kills for Tulane, Erika Hansel 13 and Dayna Kern 11.
“We knew we’d be better and be a good team, but we also knew we’d need to start two or three freshmen. You’re never quite sure how that will work out, but we did have the depth and talent,” said Barnes, who has also run the show at Lamar, Wyoming and Baylor in his career.
“We started playing really well, then lost our best attacker and blocker and ended up starting a fourth freshman. I needed them to understand what we were going though. They were confused; they knew we were making an adjustment after losing Kristen. And of course when you’re losing (matches), you think we’re terrible at that moment. But we were barely losing sets.”
Starting with a win at Memphis, the Wave’s AAC winning streak has featured an eight-match run where they gave up just four sets overall. There’s a lot of democracy happening on offense with five players owning more than 200 kills, and the group is inspired on the defensive half in ranking sixth in the nation in opponent’s hitting percentage.
It might look a little surprising, as Tulane was just 14-19 last year, but Barnes definitely felt a breakout season was in the works.
“What we’re going to be different at is, we’re going to be the best team on the floor. There may be teams with better individuals at a given position, but we’re good everywhere,” he said. “Our ‘B’ team in the gym is the best I’ve ever had, and they push us every day. It also depends what the other team is giving us; if they are weak in a certain area, we go at it, and maybe the next match looks different. Ultimately, we are winning on the defensive end, because our serve, block and defend is really good.”
One essential pillar in 2018 is junior libero Kaylie McHugh, who Barnes feels is not only the best passer and defender in the AAC, but better than anyone he saw during his days in the Big 12. In terms of fresh faces, Heidelberg has 241 kills (as a 5-foot-6 outside), Yvette Burcescu has 203 kills, and setter Taylor Henigsman handles her half of the task with great touch at 633 assists.
“These freshmen came in fiery; no one doubted them because they could handle it. They hung with us all the time in open gym, and they seemed to catch on real quick,” said junior right side Hansel, who leads the team with 267 kills and hits a sturdy .242. “That was the difference; last year we had a lot of freshmen, too, and that felt more like we needed to ride it out and see what they could do. They play with a mindset like an upperclassmen, how you don’t (tolerate) even a few balls dropping.
“No team knows who the go-to hitter is, because everyone is. The middles keep everyone on their toes, so the pins are having a great time. We have spots to hit, and it’s hard for other teams to close their block on us because they never know who’s getting set. Jim wanted to establish that middle when he came in, and he’s done a great job because it shows up in the hitting percentage.”
Now with the lingering effects of two tough seasons way back in the rear-view mirror (the Green Wave was just 15-49 in 2014-15), Tulane solved its midseason speed bump just fine and may very well be on the road to a postseason tournament berth.
“It speaks to the team and how close we are. No one’s got a big head, and we keep each other in check. We had a little scare last week and went to five (against UConn), but it was expected that we would come back,” added Hansel.
“All the lessons from last year, the team never seemed to give up, nobody acted defeated, and we worked harder every day. Personally, I played knowing it takes just one game to change (the trend). Winning at Memphis started it for us, and working for that one game, winning can become a habit, and then you have that expectation.”
Like any coach taking over a program, Dawn Sullivan had to believe in her abilities at improvisation.
And since her new gig was in Las Vegas, it made sense she needed to be comfortable on stage.
After a 13-year career as an assistant at Iowa State, Sullivan last January took the top job at UNLV, excited for the chance to run her own show but having to play catch-up in every respect, including talking to her new players on the phone before ever seeing them in uniform.
With everyone anxious to shed the baggage of an 8-23 record in 2017, the Rebels are pulling in the same direction. They’re now 19-8 overall, and at 10-6 are tied for third in the Mountain West.
The Rebels, who had won four in a row before losing to second-place Fresno State this past Saturday, have a tough task as they finish the regular season at league-leading Colorado State and then Wyoming.
But for a team that was picked to finish dead last — 11 out of 11 — in the Mountain West preseason poll, this has been quite a turnaround.
“We are in nice position, because we still have the ability to do something great … or we won’t. But the opportunity is in front of them, and that’s pretty unique, because not every program can say that,” Sullivan said.
“I’m a competitor, and I say what better time to play them here at the end with nothing to lose? At first, I was definitely swimming and sometimes even today, I feel like I’m swimming. But that’s the fun part, trying to figure those things out — this team has grabbed a hold of everything we’ve presented them, and that’s the No. 1 thing I’m most thankful for. They want to be successful and are willing to do what it takes.”
With just one senior, middle blocker and France native Elsa Decamps (202 kills), the turnaround by the Rebels just gets more interesting the more you dig.
After one setter left the program and another got hurt, Antonette Rolda has assumed the full-time gig in this, her third year at a different school. Sophomore Mariena Hayden has 456 kills (4.43/set); freshman Kate Brennan has 214 kills (2.02/set), and Sullivan has an array of outside hitters who seem to take turns having the hot hand.
Arguably, the most difficult stretch came with road losses to New Mexico and Air Force, but the roster featuring three freshman and eight sophomores has more resiliency than you’d predict.
“Every time we step on to the court with this group, we have to really refocus, no matter what, to make sure we are focused on the right things and the details. For some, maybe (Air Force) was a turning point, but I feel like every time on the court is a turning point,” Sullivan said.
“You have to remind them why they are playing, what they’re playing for and how they will get there. It’s very detailed, and that’s helped this group stay on task. We just talked about that, what we want to accomplish, and it wasn’t about what we want to win. It was about the little details we have to do every time.”
The 6-foot Hayden (a Minnesota native who played club for Northern Lights) has developed into a full-rotation force after a solid freshman year where she had to cope with very few wins and no way to run home for a restorative weekend.
“It was pretty hard, but once we got Dawn in, we felt pretty confident it would change the program around. We definitely had the mindset we didn’t want a year like last year, being last in the conference,” Hayden said. “(Transferring) crossed my mind a few times, but there’s no doubt when Dawn came here and things started changing that I would stay.
“We’ve talked about how these last four games (including Thursday’s home sweep of San Diego State) are some of the biggest of the season … We just have to keep our composure and take care of things on our side, and we should be OK.”
Being OK and feeling right about the plan was Sullivan’s primary concern when she decided to take a head coaching position. For a person with Midwest roots (she played at Kansas State) and four young children, the thought of Las Vegas was almost disqualifying by itself.
But she took great comfort in the pitch made by athletic director Desiree Reed-Francois, and then was moved by what she saw for herself.
“I felt ready for a head-coaching position and had looked at a couple situations, but nothing yet had clicked. When they called about UNLV, I thought ‘Vegas and my family, uh, don’t think so.’ ” Sullivan said. “Las Vegas is not what I expected. People say it’s the Strip and what people put on TV, but that Las Vegas is a little bubble in the middle of it all. It helps with relationships for the school, but the campus is totally different. It’s got grass, it’s pretty, it feels like a campus that feels enclosed.
“The volleyball, this was a hidden gem. It had the facilities and the support. Create the relationships and the fans will follow. With the right staff, I felt I could do something at this program.”
Photo by Sarah Otteman
When someone else is taking up all the oxygen, you’ve got to find a way to carve some open space to survive.
On the surface, the Pepperdine women’s volleyball program is in a tough spot in the West Coast Conference, putting in the hours and fending off the various nicks and ankle turns that come with the job, only to see BYU and San Diego reel in the momentum of multiple NCAA berths.
For that matter, undefeated BYU is ranked No. 1 overall in both the AVCA and VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major polls, with San Diego two games back in the WCC.
But Pepperdine (No. 53 in the latest NCAA RPI ranking) has truly turned a corner in 2018, sitting at 10-3 in the league (16-7 overall) and on course to far outshine recent WCC finishes. The Waves, who swept Saint Mary’s on Thursday, play at Pacific at noon Pacific Saturday.
Whether the NCAA comes calling with a postseason bid remains up in the air, but the Wave looks and sounds like a unit that seems inspired by the challenge.
“There’s been a focus on our base being really solid, and to build something that can be lasting over time. It starts with the players we’ve been investing in; it’s not about short-term gain,” said Scott Wong, whose team has already sprinted past their previous best of eight WCC wins in his four years as head coach. “The players we are recruiting will add value, and they share the vision we are laying out. In terms of this year, it’s been our ability to control the ball and point score — our ball control is the best it’s ever been, and the ability to serve-receive and run an efficient offense through our setter has been awesome.
“The way we prepare and practice … that’s where it starts. There are good conference opponents, and BYU and San Diego have been toward the top. We love playing against great teams and are fortunate to be in a conference with great teams. We’ll keep playing them. We took down San Diego a couple years ago.”
The regular season ends with a home match versus San Diego, so there are more highlights to chase. Pepperdine has dropped just four sets in its nine league wins and is employing an artfully built roster that leans on home-grown California talent and some wisely identified outsiders like sophomore middle Alli O’Harra (Boise, Idaho) and juniors Hannah Frohling (Edmond, Oklahoma) and Tarah Wylie (Indianapolis). Wylie was the WCC freshman of the year two years ago, and Frohling has simply blossomed in her time, earning a spot on the preseason all-WCC team.
“Last year was awesome because I got to have a really big role on the team; this spring, my mentality was to get better at everything, be more efficient at attacking and be a better blocker and more solid passer. Coming in this year, we had a lot of great players on the team, and my mentality changed a little bit,” said Frohling, who leads the team in kills (248, 3.35/set) and is hitting a robust .288. “I don’t have to be on the court for every ball, but I can help my team every single point. Maybe that’s me calling in or out when I’m on the bench, or supporting people off the court, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s been exciting, to take every chance to make my team better.
“Obviously, I always want to put the ball away and help out my team that way, but this season has opened up for me a lot of off-the-court leadership, which has been very special to me.”
At the core of operations is senior setter Blossom Sato, a Santa Monica native who played two years at Mississippi State before coming back home. Sato, whose mother played on two USA Olympic volleyball teams, has 856 assists (11.12 per set) and has successfully rebounded from injury issues in 2017. Another California native who transferred home is sophomore Shannon Scully (231 kills, 3.04/set), who played a year at Utah.
The team also gets a push from the freshman class, including Rachel Ahrens, who has 207 kills, 3.29/set. She had 12 kills and 13 digs against Saint Mary’s.
“Senior-heavy teams usually have a lot of success, so when you have a team that’s more balanced in the classes, it’s a good feeling for a coach knowing we don’t feel like we’ve arrived as a team and program,” Wong said. “We are excited about the future. Hannah has providing a big impact; it’s not a hit or pass or serve, but the mindful approach of creating change and creating a culture that has been instrumental to our approach. As a player, from passing and defense and hitting, there’s a difference, and her efficiency is way up.
“For Blossom, it’s neat to see her have this kind of season; as a junior she dealt with injuries that made it tough to be consistent. She’s playing steady volleyball, and we are asking a lot having her run a fast-tempo offense where she has to be precise.”
The moments of incremental progress are keeping Pepperdine excited and focused. Sure, a win over BYU would be transformational, but taking the Cougars to a 26-24 set earlier this year meant something. With a roster that’s in no way senior-heavy, the Wave refuse to be swamped by doubt.
“BYU, just playing them, we realize how much better we can be as a team. When you play the No. 1 team in the country, you expect they won’t make a lot of mistakes, and they don’t,” Frohling added.
“They are a lot of fun to play, and what we always learn when we play BYU is that we need to train like we can beat that kind of team. Our goal is to win every game the rest of the way. We still have to play everyone except BYU, and we know we can play with them all. We get a lot of those matches at home, which is an advantage for us. Winning them all is something we are definitely capable of doing.”
When your team wins 11 matches in a row, a certain amount of swagger and confidence deservedly grows in the locker room.
However, there’s always a humbling moment lurking around the corner in college volleyball, and the question a week or so ago for the Rice University program involved how the Owls might cope when an opponent seized the upper hand.
That moment came October 12 when Rice fell behind two sets to none at home against Marshall. The Owls had to claw from the brink just to win third set 27-25. The gritty rally continued, and Rice’s hot streak lived on with a five-set triumph, the kind of dream result that teaches lessons, clarifies goals and doesn’t nick the W-L record.
Now Rice (17-4 overall, 8-0 in Conference USA) is preparing to play Friday at second-place UTSA (16-5, 8-1), which has won six in a row. UTSA’s lone league loss was in four sets at Rice almost a month ago.
Rice, ranked No. 18 in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC, and stands at No. 34 in the NCAA RPI, which gives you reason to think the Owls could be in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if they don’t win the C-USA title.
Speaking of the NCAA Tournament, Rice — a young team with just two seniors — hasn’t been since 2009.
“The Marshall win was really important. Marshall came in and executed at a high level, and our team was very confident going in. Marshall had control early and wouldn’t back down, and we were always playing catch-up and hadn’t been in that position in a while,” said Rice coach Genny Volpe, who is in her 15th year at the school. “We are usually in decent control of our side of the net, and in that match, we were not. The composure of our team was really important and pivotal in the outcome, because we could have really panicked.
“Sometimes players don’t make adjustments, because they are too emotional or they don’t slow down enough to ask, are we following the game plan, or are we just playing volleyball? They did a good job going back to what we’d talked about in the scouting session, get back to basics, control the ball better. We were very fortunate to be on the winning side of that wake-up call. We’d had success, teams will be ready to play us and give us their best, and we have to be able to match that.”
The leader has been sophomore outside Nicole Lennon, who leads the team with 314 kills (3.93/set) and is hitting a crisp .273. Another anchor is junior middle Grace Morgan, who has 212 kills (2.75/set) and is hitting .385. She leads with 79 blocks, 10 solo.
A freshman Carly Graham (477 assists, 5.96/set) and a junior Adria Martinez (451 assists, 5.71) handle the setting.
“The team has been on a long winning streak. We’ve put in a lot of hard work for that. In that (Marshall) situation, our mindset was we weren’t going to let that hard work go to waste,” Lennon said. “Our team has great chemistry, and we’re great friends with each other. Our strategy was to lean on each other, depend on each other and make sure everyone knew their job. We managed to bring it back together because of that chemistry.”
Lennon was an effective hammer as a freshman as well, but 2018 has seen a major transformation in terms of accuracy and wisdom in the choices and chances she takes. She’s become a full-rotation player, and at 6-foot-2 is able to eat up a lot of territory with her anticipation and savvy.
“Before every single match, we say let’s treat this as if it’s for the national championship,” Lennon said. “We get on the court and say, ‘this is the natty, this is the natty!’ The next one is the most important, and you can’t get to the natty unless you win this one.”
Volpe appreciates that about Lennon.
“(Nicole) a special athlete. She is aggressive and explosive. She’s really worked from her freshman year to now on her consistency,” Volpe said. “Her choices as an outside hitter, where she sees a lot of different sets and deals with out of system balls, that’s where she’s taken her game to a higher level. Her percentage is so much better; that’s been her biggest leap. She’s also a six-rotation player, so she’s getting served at … she’s a solid defender, is long, and can take up a lot of space in the back row. She’s a fun kid, too, with a smile on her face. She has a good time and loves the game.
“All spring we worked on weaknesses, and a big one was out of system hitting. We worked on that like crazy,” Lennon added. “Our setters have done a great job, and it’s taken a load off what I have to do. It’s definitely more calm (for me), and my team has helped me in that whenever we make a mistake, we bounce back way faster. We don’t get in a hole or let the other team go on a long run.”
Volpe guided Rice to the NCAA Tournament on three occasions about a decade ago and had close calls for repeat trips in 2014 and 2016. She’s tried to work in a more difficult pre-conference schedule to boost the RPI, knowing that mid-major programs may have to do more to elevate their profiles. Rice has a win over the SEC’s South Carolina and five-set losses to Texas Tech of the Big 12 and Sun Belt-leading Texas State, and the Owls lost to Southland-leader SFA and beat Ohio Valley-leader Austin Peay.
“There are times we’ve been really close; it has weighed on us a little bit, but at the same time mid-major teams have to show a lot of perseverance in the preseason scheduling and perform well in the preseason,” Volpe said.
“We have responsibilities shared among the entire team. We don’t have a captain in charge of delegating. It’s more about all being invested in what we’re trying to do. The juniors in particular have talked about what didn’t work in the past and what could we do to change and be a better unit. We have freshmen who have what we call “ben-energy” (bench energy), who are always coming up with cheers and nicknames) This is the most spirited team I think I’ve ever coached.”
Isabella Sade - photo by Mark Kuhlmann
When the bus for the Omaha volleyball team broke down three times on the Mavericks’ long trip for two conference matches, the first ones of the 2018 season, head coach Rose Shires likely had zero idea how the roster would respond.
That’s the way it goes with a team featuring 14 freshmen and/or sophomores in uniform – there’s no history to help gauge how current events might play out.
But the Mavericks held up just fine in that chaos, topping South Dakota State and North Dakota State to launch the Summit League slate in style; for now, they are 5-0 in conference (10-7 overall) and on the cusp of becoming more than a nuisance to the league’s traditional powers. Next up is Friday’s road contest vs. South Dakota (11-7, 5-1) and then Sunday’s home match with Oral Roberts (6-12, 3-3).
Head coach Rose Shires, who won her 500th career match in that North Dakota State five-set showdown, has always liked the vibe of her young squad, and she really enjoyed their collective savvy on that stop-and-start road trip.
“The team had a lot of grit and determination. The bus broke down three times on way to South Dakota, and then we were delayed to North Dakota because of waiting for new bus, and it threw our whole weekend off. For a young team, that could have been catastrophic,” Shires said. “They did a great job of understanding what wasn’t in our control, and to take control of what we could and go at it.
“That transitioned onto the floor – those teams come at you hard, and they’ll get big kills and big stuff blocks on you and get ahead in a match, and you have to fight and come back. Or you get ahead, and you have to finish it off. We have to learn with every opportunity we have. To do what they did on the road gave them a lot of confidence they could handle pressure and the unknown.”
In the middle of that mess was middle blocker Isabella Sade, a sophomore who is second on the team in kills and is a pivot point for the increasingly skilled Omaha program – she was Summit League freshman of the year in 2017, the first Mavericks to claim that honor.
“It definitely helped with our confidence. Starting out conference on the road with two road wins was huge,” she said. “There’s no place like home, but having to play in those tough places … North Dakota State’s home crown is amazing, and being able to play under that pressure and play when everyone in the gym is rooting against you, that proves we can compete with high level teams and beat them.”
And when it comes to levels, Shires could tell you a million stories. Now in her 29th season in Omaha, Shires crafted a Division-II powerhouse for decades, winning the 1996 D-II national title and reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times, but then the footing changed completely in 2011 when the volleyball program jumped up to D-I.
The change was sudden, and the resulting impact on the win-loss front was hardly surprising, as the Mavericks have lost 19 or more matches in five of the seven seasons in Division I. But as you’d gather from how they handled the bus fiasco in September, Shires and her team don’t sulk in difficult situations.
“Going from being a perennial power in Division II and having opportunities to win national championships and conference championships every year, and then making the transition … the biggest difficulty for us was not having the advance knowledge we were going to Division I, for recruiting purposes,” Shires said. “It’s difficult to catch up in a quick fashion. To take players on my team, who were stellar Division II players … the first two years, the only teams that would play us outside a few of the ones in the conference we were transitioning to, were regional (powers) like Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Minnesota.
“It was very difficult for our players to know every time they stepped on the floor, they really didn’t have an opportunity to win and compete. We had to be very direct talking to the players about what we were defining success as … to give them building blocks.”
In fact, the Mavericks nearly sprang a colossal upset in the 2015 Summit League tournament, reaching the final and coming up just three points short from claiming a berth in the D-I NCAA event.
Hopes for a 2018 version of a tournament run will rest heavily on freshman right side Sadie Limback (the team’s kills leader) and classmate Sydney Case (the setter, averaging 11.51 per set), along with four essential sophomores in Sade, Claire Leonard (161 kills), Anna Blaschko (166) and Claire Mountjoy (team leader in digs).
How all these fresh faces work out who gets to lead by example, by volume, by presence – that’s a process that hasn’t broken down by the side of the road.
“All of us are different, and we all bring something different to the table. One of us may really loud, one of us may be calm, cool and collected, and we all bring a piece of ourselves to the court,” Sade said. “We are figuring out how to make it all jell together. Our coaches have said we have a chance to do something special, so the standards are high and at practice they make sure we are always pushing to be better.
“We want to win the serve and pass battle, get opponents out of system, because that makes it easier on our defense and block. We also want to focus on limiting other team’s runs – if we get two points they get one; if they get three, we get four.”
“The beauty of this team and this group is they really have embraced and honor each other for their own individual personalities. This is a team that is led by committee,” Shires added. “It just works, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a team that clicked this well, without any forced or pressed communication. This is not a team that likes to be yelled at or likes to yell at each other. We have goofy kids, some who are loud and boisterous and some who are quiet and introverted, but they all work together well. It’s not something we planned and designed – it’s just who they are, working and leading together."
Jordan Thompson of Cincinnati
On the eve of the 2017 volleyball season, Cincinnati’s fearsome outside hitter Jordan Thompson was abruptly sidelined with a UCL injury to her elbow.
UCL, like, the Bearcats’ opponents were Unbelievably Crazy Lucky to see her in street clothes on the bench all season.
Well, 2018 looks more familiar to Cincinnati now that Thompson’s furious set of skills is back in place.
The Bearcats are 10-4 overall (and No. 11 in last week’s VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC) after winning their American Athletic Conference opener last Friday at East Carolina.
In that match, the 6-foot-4 Thompson, a junior from Edina, Minnesota, had 18 kills, hit .548 after making one error in 31 attacks, and had an ace and 10 digs.
Through the last time NCAA stats were updated on September 21, Thompson led the nation by a healthy margin in kills with 342 — Lindsey Ruddins of UC Santa Barbara is second with 252 — and kills per set (6.22).
She’s shrugged off the injury and ready to defend her 2016 AAC player-of-the-year honors.
Thompson is trusting her arm more each day, and also believing that last year’s unpleasant off-ramp will not define her college experience.
“It was a little bit upsetting, obviously, because I knew it would make me miss the season. But I got the redshirt and knew I had two years left with the recruits we had coming in,” said Thompson, who has topped 30 kills in five matches this season.
“I tried to look at it as a blessing disguise, and then try to come back and be better. It was a different role, being there to help teammates. I learned a lot watching the game an entire year, and I feel I see things better. That’s definitely translated to how I play on the court now. It’s helped a lot on defense (watching for tips and tells from hitters).”
Cincinnati was a modest 13-19 last year, a bitter pill after back-to-back seasons with more than 20 wins and a real sense that under head coach Molly Alvey, the program was on the rise. But Alvey didn’t panic, and the roster ended up with a pretty solid 2017 campaign, coming up just short in the conference race when other injuries derailed their hard work on the last two weekends of the season.
“Losing a player like Jordan, and the timing of it, was pretty critical to the team. We work hard on being good teammates; when you lose a significant player like Jordan at that point, no matter who you are, that’ll be a huge mental task,” said Alvey, in her seventh year running the Bearcats. “And the other key point is, if we didn’t have toughest non-conference schedule last year, it’d have to be No. 2 or 3, because we were stacked with competition. I felt like we needed that experience, but to take a hit like that and be blindsided … the team did as well as it could in that moment.
“In the long term, we played really well in conference. I think that all set us up for (today’s) mental toughness we show. To do what they did under those circumstances … we were definitely handcuffed.”
One indicator that Cincinnati is next to unflappable is seen in how the team responded to senior setter Jade Tinglehoff getting hurt at the Colorado State Invitational at the start of September. Freshman Armania Heckenmueller has stepped into the job, and the team has been sturdy enough to keep improving instead of backtracking or being tentative with the lineup change.
“You put freshman in that role, that’s a heavy task in that schedule. What we’ve done since is pretty impressive, and it’s all about how you respond,” Alvey said. “You might want to give less and feel sorry for yourself, but we’ve had contributions from everyone in a lot of different roles to elevate and support our freshman. When you have to move people in and out, but still sustain a level of play, we don’t point fingers. And this has been great experience for the younger kids; we can be creative as coaches, and the team has responded.”
Thompson knows she’ll have to do more than just blindly pound away on offense, as defenses are well aware of her reputation and will do anything short of sitting on her shoulders to combat her power. But an athlete thoughtful enough to not let a severe injury keep her down is the type who loves the idea of lifting her game — she’s played a ton of back row this year for the first time in her college career, and she maintained superior discipline on her diet and conditioning while she was hurt.
“It’s become clear people are (scouting me) and planning for what I bring to the table; I’m always working on different shots and not doing the same thing every time,” Thompson said. “People can see the film; I want to mix up the shots and keep developing as a player over the season. I try not to focus on the stats – it’s sometimes cool to see that, but it’s not something I pay a lot of attention to. We’ve seen how much we’ve grown in the preseason, and we have a lot of momentum now. We know what we are capable of and are excited to see how conference will play out for us.”
“She wants to learn. Zero percent of her thinking is that she’s the player she is. She’s constantly looking to get better,” Alvey added. “There are things to work on. She had to learn to use that arm again. The muscles, the movements aren’t natural, and for us who see her all the time, there are things that still don’t look right. There’s another level I know she will get to by the end of the season because she’s still re-training herself.”
Cleveland State coach Chuck Voss and senior Rachel Stover
Some defeats provide many useful lessons and coaches will tell you that good information comes from the experience, so it’s hard to be negative.
But other losses?
For the Cleveland State volleyball program, nothing hurt more than a September 15 defeat against Kent State, a 3-1 setback that highlighted the roster’s main issues of leadership and togetherness. In some ways, the problems didn’t come out of the blue — after three straight Horizon League regular-season and tournament championships, the Vikings were a little thin on savvy veterans and very deep in fresh faces.
But after the wake-up call last month, the alert has been sounded about Cleveland State, which stands at 4-0 in league play (10-6 overall) heading into Friday’s home match against IUPUI.
The roster has a shared vision, with an impressive batch of younger players contributing under pressure and forming the nucleus that might fuel another powerful run under 19th-year coach Chuck Voss.
“We lost to Kent State, a match we felt we never should have lost, and after that we had a sit down with the juniors and seniors and said, this is coming down to you. ‘What are you willing to do?’"
They won their next four matches.
“The staff had met two hours before with a wide-ranging list of questions and we went down the line, asking all of them. Everybody said yes and bought in, and the last three weeks they’ve done everything they said they would. It’s been the difference –- when things don’t go our way, those girls in particular are fighting and supporting each other, staying positive and fighting through those lulls.”
“We responded well. We were just so pissed off that we lost, and we knew we had to work harder. We were mad, and it sparked us,” said senior Rachel Stover, who is second on the team in kills and blocks. “We have great talent in every position, but we had to start pulling together the same direction. I feel we are on the right track; we have to keep working together and holding each other accountable. We all have the same goals, and we know it won’t be an easy ride to get there. We have to mentally prepare before each match, and battle for every point.”
Fellow senior and defensive specialist Rachael Dohar contributes a strong vocal presence on the court, and the Vikings are bolstered by a slew of youngsters.
Sophomore Emily DeGeorge leads the team in kills (at 5-foot-9); freshman setter Christina Grecol has been a revelation, and sophomore Hannah Greene has evolved from a part-timer last year to a thumping force in the middle. To cap it off, new DS Mackenzie Connor is considered by Voss to be the best one he’s had as a freshman.
“Emily is one of the best six-rotation outsides I’ve had. There’s lots on her plate, unfortunately maybe too much for a sophomore,” Voss said. “Hannah has taken a full-time role now, and both those kids are fully committed and will do whatever it takes. And we’ve seen Christina be very effective as a floor general. You’d like your freshmen to just go out and play, but there’s a lot on her plate and she’s handling it well.”
“We were nervous going in and not sure what to expect, but these younger kids are stepping up and filling the roles we need. I really like how we’re playing right now; we’re pushing one another in practice to get better,” Stover said. “I’m not going to settle. Each of our opponents are giving us their best shot every time out, and we won’t take any teams lightly. I look forward to all of us getting better.”
The preseason choice to claim another Horizon League title, the Vikings face a meaty challenge after Friday, with four consecutive road matches, including two healthy bus trips into Wisconsin. Remaining tests include road matches against Green Bay and Northern Kentucky, who probably have the best chance to dethrone Cleveland State.
Thanks to that sobering moment against Kent State, it’s hard to imagine the Vikings flinching at the challenges ahead.
“After last season we knew we had a gap, primarily in our leadership – that was the biggest question mark. We have two seniors, both doing a good job, but you win championships with juniors and seniors,” Voss said. “We’ve been talking about it since the spring and honestly, the last three weeks or so, we’ve seen dramatic change from quite a few players. That’s why we are starting to string together a few victories.”
“It’s hard to believe I’m a senior; I love these girls and will miss them and the times we’ve had on and off the court,” Stover added. “The relationships … that’s the main reason we’ve played so well over these past few years, because of the chemistry we have. We bring that out into the court and have fun, and I’m going to miss that.”
Freshman setter Emily DeWalt
After 38 years at the helm at Texas State, coach Karen Chisum thought she’d seen almost everything.
But in her 39th year, there have been times in the 2018 season where she’s moved a few players in and out of the lineup, only to notice that suddenly there were five freshmen on the court. That’s usually something coaches do only if they are desperate or trying to send a message.
The Bobcats are indeed sharing some important news –- this batch of newcomers might be made up of unique and even special ingredients.
After beating Little Rock in four on Friday and then sweeping Arkansas State on Saturday, Texas State sits at 13-5 overall and 4-0 atop the Sun Belt Conference, with most of the eight-player freshman class doing some of the heavy lifting.
Chisum felt comfortable with her roster’s makeup from the start, figuring 17-year assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Tracy Smith had the right vision, prompting Chisum to get the newcomers in the mix early and often.
“There’s no doubt, we’ve had a few very good recruiting classes, and this most recent one is probably the best recruiting class we’ve had in 15-20 years,” Chisum said. “We’ve been successful in keeping kids here, and it’s rare to ever have anybody want to leave.”
Chisum has guided the Bobcats to a 113-60 record the past five seasons and has 881 career victories.
“I knew we were going to have to get some early playing time for the freshmen, because they had to get used to our coliseum and to the faster pace, playing above the net. I’ve looked on the court on occasion and seen five freshmen, and I look around and think, what am I doing? But it’s been fun, and they’ve gotten the experience we’ve definitely needed heading into conference.”
One indicator of future success is maturity, and Texas State has certainly displayed that in 2018. In their third match of the season against LSU, senior outside hitter Megan Porter tore her ACL. Aside from the shock and disappointment, the Bobcats had to solve a lineup hole, and they did that with Florida transfer Cheyenne Huskey moving to outside, where she anchors the offense with senior Amy Pflughaupt.
Huskey was one of the setters in the team’s 6-2 offense, but her shift meant freshman Emily DeWalt would become primary setter, and she’s been beyond solid, averaging 10.59 assists per set.
She’s the only freshman to be named Sun Belt setter of the week three times in a season, and that’s only through September.
“When Megan went down, we were all nervous, because she was such a big part of our offense. We came together and said we can’t let this knock us off our (stride), and we are still out there chasing a (championship),” said DeWalt, who played for the powerful San Antonio Magic club and is tasked with replacing one of the program’s all-time greats in setter Erin Hoppe.
“Cheyenne stepped in, transitioned into it fast and has done a great job; we’ve kept trucking and doing want we were from the beginning. I was super excited to see that big freshman class. We were all going to start from the same place, start together and help each other out, and contribute whatever we could for the program.
“I tried not to think about it (replacing Hoppe), and to just trust my game. I wanted to focus on my game and not necessarily who I was replacing, and so far it seems to be working.”
“Emily’s volleyball IQ is very high, and she makes so many great decisions. We expected Emily to be on the court, but we expected her as a back-line setter only,” Chisum said. “We made the move with Cheyenne, and Emily hasn’t hurt us on the block. She’s a delight, and an intense (athlete) who is a likeable kid. She’s got high work ethic, everyone respects her, and we’re lucky to have her.”
Jillian Slaughter, a club teammate of DeWalt’s, has played very well as a freshman, as has Janell Fitzgerald, a 6-foot-1 thumper who is still just 17 years old. Fitzgerald played with Texas Advantage in her club days, making huge strides last year on Ping Cao’s 17 Black squad. Chisum is also getting mileage from walk-on defensive specialist Kayla Granado (Austin Juniors), and loves the potential of 5-9 freshman Sarabi Worsley-Gilbert (OTVA), whose explosive ability allows her to touch above 10 feet.
The Bobcats played a wicked non-conference schedule (losses coming versus Baylor, Marquette, LSU, Texas, and Kentucky), but they’re in a good place in the Sun Belt.
“We learned a lot; first of all, that we could compete with teams like that. Others would be scared to be thrown in against such high-ranked teams, but we took it and learned from it,” DeWalt said. “If we play our game, we can compete with teams as highly ranked as that.”
“I want our kids to see the upper echelon, the (national top 40) level we want to get to; secondly, if they’re not on the schedule, you can’t beat them,” added Chisum. “Anything can happen at any time … but it’s true, after the first two weeks I looked and thought maybe I did over-schedule. We got back on track, and we competed with Texas and Kentucky. We had to move people around, and I could tell the team afterward there’s no one we will face in our conference that’s better than Baylor or Kentucky or Texas.”
As the Iona volleyball program continues its climb from a cluster of sub-.500 records, there’s logic in leaning on a player who is comfortable with long journeys.
The Gaels’ roster in 2018 is a reliable blend of experienced players and promising newcomers, but everyone is aware that senior Claire Archibald will likely be the leading light, having been named the preseason co-player of the year in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. She was a first-team all-MAAC selection as a junior, leading the team in kills and digs, while also authoring an imposing total of 61 aces, one of the best in the nation.
This year, Iona (located in the New York City suburb of New Rochelle, N.Y.) is hoping for that next bounce forward after a 16-18 finish and an appearance in the MAAC tournament title match. Archibald, a product of Coto de Caza, Calif., who cut her teeth under the tutelage of Troy Tanner at Tstreet, is flexing her muscles early.
She had 22 kills and 22 digs in a five-set win September 1 over New Hampshire. The Gaels (2-3) have had a nice stretch off and play host to Central Connecticut on Wednesday.
Mastering many skills is a product of learning how to do one thing, she believes.
“I was lucky enough to find Tstreet before it became a club. My mom decided to take a risk and put me in volleyball; I was playing soccer at the time,” Archibald said. “Having Troy Tanner as a mentor and practicing his methods … the first thing I remember Troy saying in developing me as a player had to do with my passing and my platform. He said if you can’t pass, you can’t play.
“The other things fell into place later on, but having the basics of how you step when you approach … not even about hitting the ball or where, just the fundamentals of your platform, where your feet are placed, your hands when you set the ball. Over time, it becomes second nature, and when I mess up I know exactly what I did wrong.”
While Archibald is the epitome of stability, her run at Iona has certainly featured some turbulence. The program turned to a new coach in 2016, with Patric Santiago moving in from a successful stint at SUNY Farmingdale, and while the fresh air of his perspective helped matters, the team stumbled to a 7-24 record that season.
For some, the challenge of being so far from home during such disruption would have been too much to tolerate. But Archibald, who leads the Gaels at 3.79 kills per set through the first matches, is not the type to panic.
“I was pretty excited; I know the early results weren’t in our favor, but the process behind the scenes was (positive),” she said. “We had a really big culture shift; the dynamic of the team shifted, how we carried ourselves around campus, and what we expected out of our practices and weightlifting session and how hard we trained, the academics … it all shifted.
“I’ll be honest, in other circumstances it was possible Iona wouldn’t have been the right fit for me, but I had a lot of faith in coach Pat, and he did a great job in turning our program into what it is now. I’ve always been a very committed person, someone who can stick through those low lulls.”
Santiago has emphasized big-picture topics at Iona, with last year’s turnaround campaign giving everyone reason to believe. The last winning records for the Gaels came in 2013 (16-14) and 2010 (20-11), and this season has all the makings of breaking the trend.
“There were a lot of great people already in place, and the kids seemed eager to learn a new culture and be held accountable. They took to it; it didn’t show dividends right away, but in terms of attitude and behavior, they embraced it,” Santiago said. “And when they really embraced it in the second year, they got more to take away from it. We talked about wins and losses as little as possible. We talk about our behaviors and the work, and how that impacted the program. Reflect our individual values, embrace that and try to get better every day.”
Look for sophomore Jamie Smith to add serious bounce to the program; she was the MAAC rookie of the year in 2017 as the team’s primary setter while also finishing second in kills. Iona’s next two top performers in kills last year, Tess Connolly and Mia Bonsignore, are also back. And of course, Archibald is there to provide her varied assortment of skills.
“She came from a great program; it’s nice to see someone with that talent to grow, because when she came in she definitely had some emotional growth that needed to happen, as we all do,” Santiago said of Archibald, who also averages 3.53 digs per set, second on the team. “She’s really done a nice job growing her game; she didn’t let the fact she had a lot of skills coming in stop her from developing and becoming more complete. Her leadership has been phenomenal.”
The bittersweet aspects of “senior year” aren’t really a concern now for Archibald, but that doesn’t mean she’s missing the point of her career drawing to a close.
“There is some pressure with it being my last year, but this is a great opportunity to come out and have a great season again,” she said. “One thing I wanted to keep in mind … I very much want to play for the little 9-year-old who chose to play volleyball, and the 14-year-old who had to make the decision to play volleyball over soccer, and the girl who decided to move all the way across the country to play a sport she loves, at a Division I program where she didn’t know anybody or anything, and who took a leap of faith.
“Having faith and confidence in the abilities I’ve been able to grow is very important, and so is being grounded and humble. There are so many little girls who would die for the opportunity to have what I have, and every single day, no matter how hard it is to get up at 5:30, or do the weightlifting … it’s so worth it. At the end of the day, I’m going to look back on all four years and be very happy."
OLE MISS 3, TEXAS TECH 0 (25-17, 25-15, 25-19)
OXFORD, MS -- Ole Miss built early leads in the first two sets, then rumbled ahead in the third set after a 15-15 tie, and rode 17 kills from Emily Stroup to beat Texas Tech and win the 2017 NIVC championship.
The Rebels (22-14) dropped just one set in five matches during the tournament, beating West Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas State and Stephen F. Austin in the previous rounds.
Ole Miss won a challenge in the first set, which gave them an 8-7 lead, and the lead expanded to 12-8 on a kill from Stroup. Emily Hill had a kill to draw Texas Tech (19-15) to 17-15, but winners off the arms of Bayleigh Scott and Lexi Thompson pushed the lead to 21-16 for Ole Miss, which rolled to the win from there.
In Set 2, three errors from the Red Raiders allowed Ole Miss to build a 17-11 lead, and again, there would be no rally from the visitors.
Set 3 was more back-and-forth, with Texas Tech taking a 15-14 lead on a kill from Katy Keenan. Ole Miss replied quickly and took a 23-16 lead; Kate Gibson's kill gave her team match point, and Stroup finished it off with her final kill.
Ole Miss had five aces and hit .276 on the night, and Stroup hit .353 against the Red Raiders. Gibson and Thompson each had nine kills, and Jordan Fate had 19 assists. Caroline Adams topped 513 digs on the season, setting a single-season record for the Rebels.
Chandler Atwood had 11 kills for Texas Tech.
The 2017 NIVC all-tournament was announced after the match; those players awarded were:
Emily Stroup (MVP), Ole Miss
Kate Gibson, Ole Miss
Caroline Adams, Ole Miss
Missy Owens, Texas Tech
Kate Klepetka, Texas Tech
Mia Swanegan, West Virginia
Anna Walsh, TCU