Coaches always dare to hope –- but hardly expect –- their NCAA women’s college volleyball rosters to assemble in perfect harmony.
However, you probably can’t find a volleyball lineup more in tune than the group at Radford, which has won 12 of its first 13 matches in 2017 and looks to be as skilled and savvy as any in the Big South Conference. The Highlanders are off to a 2-0 start in league play, are steaming toward their fourth 20-win season in five years, and have broken into the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
Coach Marci Jenkins has carefully crafted a team that is experienced but not senior-heavy, and ready to win now without leaving the future a complete question mark. The lineup typically includes a mix of juniors and seniors, with a sophomore and freshman starting, and features a classic 6-foot kill-shot machine in the form of senior Maddie Palmer.
Last year’s Big South player of the year is swinging with style again, leading the team in kills and digs, and is comfortably ahead of the pace needed to become the program’s all-time kills leader by the end of 2017.
In 2016, Palmer had 495 kills, 266 more than her closest teammate, and averaged 4.5 kills per set. In her first 13 matches this season, the product of Simpsonville, S.C, Palmer has picked up right where she left off, averaging 4.46 kills. What’s more, she had 18 aces and leads the team with 150 digs, 3.06 per set.
“She’s really good with the younger kids. She does not have the sort of ego you might get at times, and in fact could be a little tougher, to be honest. She wants those younger kids to develop, because she knows she can’t do it by herself,” Jenkins said.
“As a freshman, she came in with team that had won the Big South in 2013, learned from older kids and saw a path in how she would become a leader.”
Radford coach Marci JenkinsJenkins, whose team won 24 matches each in 2014 and 2016 and is hoping to revisit the glory run of 2013, when it won 25 and reached the NCAA Tournament, said Palmer is a hard worker.
“She was always a physical kid. She did a ton of work in weight room after her freshman year. We don’t always get kids who are polished and ready to go, and it might take a couple of years to get their body ready to go,” Jenkins said. “Now, she’s the kid we thought she could be, but she has certainly exceeded it by so much. She’s come a long way as a person and player and student –- she finished with a 4.0 last semester.”
All kinds of talent have taken root in the environment provided by Palmer and Jenkins. Junior setter Haley Kleespies (whose mother and two sisters all played college volleyball) was first-team all-conference in 2016, while junior Valerie Gonzalez has more kills now (119) than she had all last year. Sophomore Stephanie Neast is also fortifying the offense (105 kills), while freshman Maci Keaton is the team leader in blocks.
Jenkins mentioned the program is aware the post-Maddie Palmer Era is something that must be prepared for, but the excitement and potential of the here-and-now has to be enjoyed. Radford posted five-set wins on the road a week apart at Arizona and South Carolina in early September, which certainly pointed to something promising.
“We knew coming in we had a veteran team, and that we might need to rely on some younger players to provide a few pieces as we lost just two seniors from last year. And we scheduled a tough preseason,” Jenkins said. “I wasn’t sure what we were going to get – my first thought was, just have our head above water before conference, and then we’ll be OK.
“Beating Arizona was huge, and the next weekend beating South Carolina was also huge. I (certainly) didn’t sit here in May and say we are going 12-1 and 2-0 in conference to start. For them to produce what they have so far, is a thing of beauty for us to watch. And we haven’t played our best volleyball yet, which is interesting.”
The one recent year where the Highlanders struggled was 2015, when the record deflated to 14-15, but that was the result of freakish injury problems. Palmer missed 10 matches with an ankle injury, no middles were healthy, two setters missed time with concussions and current defensive specialist Kaylor Nash had to run the offense.
Radford is healthy and in sync in 2017, and must now stay sharp for the challenges of the Big South schedule. Next up is a tricky road match Friday at Campbell (an unexpected 0-3 so far in league play) and then a true test of mettle Saturday at High Point. The Panthers (10-6, 3-0) were the preseason favorites for the Big South crown.
“We try to say it every week to the team, we are 0-0, regardless of what happened last week,” Jenkins added. “This conference has teams that do good things in their own systems. There’s not a day you can say, we’ll play one team the same way we just played this other team.
“We’ll have to face High Point at least twice, and maybe more if we take care of business as we go through it, but it’s too early to get too focused on that.”
The non-conference schedule for an NCAA volleyball team can be crafted to resemble a nice, comfortable chair, with extra cushions and an ottoman that pops up in recline mode.
For Erin Appleman and the Yale Bulldogs, the early slate for 2017 felt more like fitting into an elementary school desk, bonking knees and elbows and fighting to get the backrest right.
Discomfort was the goal when Appleman assembled the plan, looking to see if the Bulldogs could respond positively when facing the stellar athletic firepower of teams like USC, Penn State and Arkansas. Yale has emerged wiser for the experience and will take a 6-3 record into the start of Ivy League play this weekend.
Yale opens conference play with five home matches, starting Friday against Brown (5-6). The Bulldogs are then off a full week before playing host to Princeton.
Also in the pre-conference, Yale pulled off a three-set sweep of Wake Forest, which is packed with strong hitters topping well over 6 feet, and the Bulldogs also swept UC Santa Barbara and Ohio.
“Everyone was giving me a hard time a month ago when I said we might start out 1-8. Our schedule was pretty tough. It was really good to play against bigger, stronger athletes, and there were teams we had success against that had that,” said Appleman, who has guided Yale to seven Ivy League championships in her 14 years at the school in New Haven, Connecticut.
“That helped our team develop, and in facing some of those teams, our athletes did a nice job of just going for it. They got the confidence that will help us through the conference.”
The Bulldogs are coming off a 19-5 season in 2016 and certainly boast a roster that can threaten defending league-champion Princeton and others in the next several weeks. Appleman has combed through the rosters of top club teams in California (Sunshine, Coast, Wave, Tstreet, Vision), Texas (Mad Frog, Houston Skyline) and Florida (OVA) to build a reliably strong program, one that won five straight Ivy League crowns from 2010-14.
One concern for 2017 was replacing the offensive prowess of Brittani Steinberg, a first-team all-Ivy League selection. The task is being spread around the lineup, with junior outside hitter Kelley Wirth doing a solid job when asked to lead and hitting .302 so far this season. One of the most talented players to reach campus in recent years, sophomore setter Franny Arnautou, has merged her talents gracefully with two-year starter Kelsey Crawford, and that’s giving Yale some lock-down excellence at a key position.
“I was concerned for about a day. Franny happens to be one of the best teammates we have. She’s a super competitor, but the setters work hard making each other better,” Appleman said. “She’s a gifted athlete, played on some national teams and in high-performance programs along the way, but she’s one of the best teammates I could find in someone, and for a setter that’s a great skill to have.”
For any coach to have an extended run in the Ivy League, he or she must cope with the pressures and expectations that emanate from the classroom. And with no athletic scholarships to entice, Appleman has to do her best to develop players while knowing they could up and leave anytime for a scholarship offer somewhere else. But the right kids usually find their way to Yale and that’s what keeps Appleman at her post.
“We have to recruit strong academic kids. That’s the starting point. It’s one of the main reasons I’m here and love working at Yale, is because of the student-athletes and their determination,” she said.
“Every one of them wants to be really good at everything they do. They want the extra work, watch more video, get extra passing reps. It’s so refreshing to see that as I get older, these younger kids are still striving to get better. It’s a joy to come into work every day.”
With eight years of history as an assistant coach at Penn State preceding her days at Yale, Appleman has gained a real thirst for the top of the standings, and she admits there’s a steady burn in her thoughts regarding Princeton’s two-year claim on the league title. The margin has been tight: In 2015 the Bulldogs were sent askew because of injuries and the 2016 team was primarily driven by underclassmen who may not have been ready for that next step.
Humble but hungry, Yale is looking to restore order.
“You don’t go into it thinking, ‘I want to win five (league titles) in a row.’ The third one, I wasn’t even thinking about it and I was talking to my mom, and she said, ‘Hey, that’s three in a row!’ and I’m, like, what?” Appleman said with a laugh. “Honestly, my goal is to be the most improved team every year, because then I know I’m doing what I should be doing. But there is a fire under us.
“What makes a program successful is not being high and low, not having that mountain and valleys approach. It’s about us being more mature and sustaining against good runs that other teams make. We do have to get better on the road, and that’s why we played some tough teams on the road (in non-conference). We wanted to have some adversity to overcome and still be able to perform.”
Photo by Rick Yeatts/North Texas Athletic Communcations
As the North Texas volleyball team makes its way through the 2017 season, players and coaches are perfectly fine with exploring the middle of the road.
That means leaning on the centerpieces of the roster, senior middle blockers Amanda Chamberlain and Holly Milam, who have helped the Mean Green show some burst on the front end of their schedule. After Wednesday’s three-set sweep of Abilene Christian, North Texas sits a 9-1 overall, matching the program’s best-ever start through 10 matches and earning a spot in the Top 25 of the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
Chamberlain is hitting an astonishing .550 and leads the team in kills and blocks, while Milam is second in kills and paces the team in digs.
“Our system, we really try to force the middle in order to open up the pins. Amanda has the unique ability with her size (6-foot-3) and the speed she plays with – she wasn’t always like that, had to get in shape, but this year she’s putting it all together,” said head coach Andrew Palileo, whose team is on an eight-match winning streak heading into this weekend’s Maroon Classic at Mississippi State. “Holly is all about speed – she’s a little smaller at 6-1, and we really push the tempo with our sets for Holly, especially on our slides. She’s also very versatile and gets some numbers playing outside a few rotations, so she’s not always in the middle.”
With that strong central identity, the Mean Green have elbow room for senior Alexis Wright on the outside, with freshmen Barbara Teakell and Valerie Valerian also swinging effectively and efficiently. That’s a lot of territory and options for opposing defenses to confront, and it’s a huge reason for the program’s strong start.
“Barbara is your traditional outside who has that shot-making ability, and she knows how to manage her play and still score, even if she’s struggling a bit. She’s also holding up on passing, because you know everyone is trying to pick on our two freshmen in serve receive,” Palileo said. “Alexis, on the right side, has always been stuck with that ‘P’ word – potential. She’s finally executing what we are asking, and doing it in blocking as well.”
A year ago, the Mean Green played through a variety of obstacles and ended up with a 13-19 record; it was the first season without two-time Conference USA player of the year Carnae Dillard, and an early ankle injury to Milam jostled the lineup even more. When the backline defense started to wobble, Palileo moved setter Amy Henard to libero – it was a year where nothing came easily.
That last move, however, allowed Karley York to get time in at setter, and now as a junior she’s playing with savvy and confidence, averaging nearly 12 assists per set. Coaches and fans might say their team is on the verge of a breakout moment, but North Texas truly had the elements waiting underneath the surface to spark a terrific season.
“We were in a lot of close matches last year, but the biggest thing about last year was our chemistry wasn’t what it should have been. Anytime we needed that trust when other teams were really pushing us, we didn’t have it,” Palileo said. “I knew we were coming back with a lot of experience, and that the freshmen were going to help. Our girls are getting along and genuinely care for each other – after each match we ask, did we love each other out there, did we make our teammates better, did we respect the game? That’s been our focus in the moment.”
Looking ahead, North Texas knows that Western Kentucky (which has three straight 30-win seasons) is the highest bar within C-USA, and there’s a cluster of other contenders (Rice, UTSA, Marshall, Southern Miss) who have reason to think they can put up a fight. Palileo likes his chances, however, because his roster keeps giving him reason to do so.
“You have to be able to win on the road – that’s always important. But our schedule fits us well, because last year we were at Western Kentucky, at Rice, at UTSA, and this year we have them all at home,” he added. “We’re just playing better, and better as a team at the things that will be required. That effectiveness in the middle has opened up things for us; we stay consistent with ball control, that will drive us in the middle.”
North Texas will face Southeastern Louisiana (1-9), Mississippi State (7-5) and Jackson State (1-10) at the Maroon Classic.
Photo by Bradley Widding
As the 2017 Central Arkansas volleyball team looks ahead – and the view is pretty sweet at the moment, with the Sugar Bears sitting at 6-0 overall – what the program did months ago certainly seems to be paying off.
First off, the 2016 season ended with seven victories in the final eight matches. Springtime workouts and summer preparation allowed Central Arkansas to refine the team’s front court offensive firepower while also remedying some concerns in the back row, and those developments have head coach Jeni Jones Chatman very enthused for the future.
“We were able to put together some good spring competition (Louisiana Tech and Ole Miss) and won both those matches – I know it’s spring, and it doesn’t matter in terms of wins and losses,” said Chatman, whose team received votes this week in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC. “But it was good for our players to see that, yes, what we’re putting together was starting to work, not just pieced together in drills but in match play.
“One thing that has not been a strong suit here has been our first-ball contact. We’ve grown leaps and bounds with that, not only with the returners we have but the new players as well. We’ve got a freshman libero (Emily Doss) we are very confident with and the load she’s carrying, and will continue to carry.”
The Sugar Bears began the season with a three-match sweep at the Buffalo Invite, a tourney scheduled so the two Canadian players on the roster (junior Savanah Allen and senior Megan Nash) could play relatively close to home. That was followed by three wins at home at the UCA Invite, where junior outside hitter Haley Tippett was named tourney MVP.
Tippett, classmate Samantha Anderson and Nash all earned Southland Conference honors after last season and have continued to hammer away with efficiency. Steadier hands in the back, including sophomore setter Elizabeth Armstrong and freshman Bailey Waddington, have surfaced with the guidance of new assistant coach Marissa Collins, who started four years at setter for UCA and guided the team to consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament.
So in her third season at the helm, Chatman has some pieces she can use to confront two performance questions in 2017. First, with back-to-back season of 16 wins, can the program move past that and get to 20? Also, is Central Arkansas closing the gap with Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, favored to win its third straight Southland Conference title?
“I have personal goals and program goals, but certainly getting as close to a 20-win season as a mid-major program is very important. Not just for (NCAA) RPI and potential at-large bids, but with the NIVC coming in as another opportunity for postseason play, it could be a big part of the selection process,” she said. “If you can show you can win and are consistent against your peers or teams that are perhaps better than you on paper, that’s a great thing.
“Certainly, Corpus Christi has run the table in our conference the past two years and is very intact, and has played together the past four years. Credit to those players and coaches who got that going and have maintained it – it’s hard getting there, but maintaining it is even harder. It’s certainly a goal of ours to put up wins and championships back-to-back like that.”
Such aspirations probably seemed fanciful in Chatman’s debut season of 2015, when injuries immediately affected the roster. Nash, a force in the middle from the start of her career, missed several weeks with a dislocated thumb, and her backup went down with an ankle injury three days later. When the libero went down in the same week, the mood seemed pretty grim, but the roster rallied and ended up putting together a winning season.
“Megan is veteran attacker, very versatile, and it’s been honestly all about finding ways to get her the ball more. We added beach volleyball this past year, and Megan played beach prior to coming here – she was on our 1’s and has grown a lot playing beach,” Chatman said. “The mentality of ‘I have to make something happen’ is a big part of it.”
Next up for the Sugar Bears is another tournament on their home floor, the Sept. 7-9 UCA Classic. In-state rival Arkansas State will certainly bring energy to the gym; Central Florida (3-3) has played a tough early schedule, and Southern is a bit of an unknown, having cancelled four matches because of weather disruptions caused by Hurricane Harvey.
The lineup looks up to the challenge – two sophomore attackers (Abbie Harry and Amanda Beaton) have evolved into rotation assets who provide real insurance in case something goes awry, while setter Waddington has proven to be a quick study.
“Last year, I don’t know if we had legitimate backups at every position, but this year we do,” Chatman added. “The progression of these tournaments, getting harder and harder as we go through the (non-conference) weeks is something I really like, but as we pointed out while watching film, there’s a long way to go. Our objective is to be playing in December, and that’s a really long time from now. It’s a fun challenge, to get them to buy into pushing themselves.”
For the past decade and a half, NCAA women’s volleyball fans have been able to count on the sight of San Diego in the rankings and in the mix as one of the notable programs in the country.
But just how the Toreros get it done – which players emerge as they enter their junior and senior years, and which newcomers make a dent – that’s more of a mystery. Head coach Jennifer Petrie simply has a knack for guiding her program through roster churn, and San Diego is looking like its formidable self as the 2017 season comes to life.
The Toreros, currently ranked No. 17 in the AVCA poll and No. 3 in the NIVC/VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major poll, began the season with a loss to No. 11 UCLA but responded with three-set sweeps of then-No. 20 Hawaii and Marquette. After moving past 2016’s disappointing first-round loss to Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, Petrie said this less-seasoned squad is trying to get comfortable with its situation.
“I’m happy to see we are in that consideration every year here in the past 15 years,” Petrie said, “and that’s always exciting to have established that reputation, where no matter who we have returning and no matter who is here, people recognize the program has the ability to be in that top group. That feels really good. Of course, you’ve got to prove yourself every year, and that’s what we’re busy with now.
“We knew it would be a learning process from the start since we graduated a lot of our players who really carried us. We started with a 6-2 (offense) with UCLA and felt we didn’t play like we wanted to. Part of it was first-game jitters, and the other part was just the comfort level with the system. We changed it up against Hawaii, went with more experienced kids, and that provided some confidence, and some leadership emerged.”
San Diego, which has reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times since Petrie took over as head coach in 1999, has experienced some impressive highs in recent seasons. Last year, the Toreros won 18 consecutive matches and rose as high as No. 5 in the AVCA poll, and in 2013 the program beat No. 1 USC and rose as high as No. 2 nationally.
With honorable mention AVCA all-Americans Lisa Kramer and Lauren Schad no longer on campus, the highest ground might look a bit daunting. A new hammer on offense is emerging, however, in senior Jayden Kennedy, who earned West Coast Conference player of the week honors after thumping 37 kills in those first three matches, including 17 kills in the victory against Hawaii.
“We’ve been fortunate that kids by their senior years come out of the shadows, and that’s the case with Jayden, who was behind some all-American seniors last year,” Petrie said. “She has stepped into the role where she understands it’s her coming out, and she can be that player for us. She can lead us in the offense all year, and that’s something she can embrace.”
Kennedy hit the program as an electric freshman from Ontario, Canada, and started 42 of her first 52 matches in her first two seasons. She’s been steady through the trials of people competing for her spot as well as injury, missing nine months in and around her junior year with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery.
Also strong out of the gate is senior libero Lizzy Tardieu, who only had four starts in her first three seasons, and middles Addie Picha and Merve Tanyel, the latter a senior from Istanbul, Turkey.
Providing some very timely assistance is freshman outside hitter Roxie Wiblin, who graduated a semester early and was on campus training with the Toreros in the spring. After losing a player to an ACL injury in the spring, San Diego was able to accelerate Wiblin’s development, and she’s been a factor offensively and defensively.
“We have so many players this season who haven’t had a name in the past, and they are huge, strong contributors. There’s a new libero, middles who are producing – there are new names and new faces who I think will be awesome contributors this year,” Petrie added. “The most satisfying thing is, the system is working, and kids who are juniors and seniors have learned a lot. They are absorbing the culture, waiting for their time and then producing when their number is called.”
San Diego will host the USD Invitational on Sept. 1-2; taking on Georgia Tech on Friday and then Villanova on Saturday morning. The Toreros will conclude with a match Saturday evening against No. 4 Texas.