By Kyle Koso
While many maneuvers in rebooting a college sports program require long-term patience, sometimes it’s a quick trip to success when the right factors come together.
Quite suddenly, the University of Houston volleyball squad has awakened from a slumbering era, very much timed to the arrival of head coach David Rehr ahead of the 2019 season. After seven years with Arkansas State, Rehr made the move to a program he saw as a “sleeping giant” and currently sits with a 10-2 record as Houston prepares to launch American Athletic Conference play Friday at home versus Tulsa.
Rehr’s enthusiastic embrace of the Houston job led to a table-setting debut season (16-17 overall) in 2019, followed by a West Division title in the American Athletic Conference during 2020’s COVID-altered campaign. Most notable, arguably, was the sight of four different Cougar players earning league player of the week honors – an indication the depth of the roster was emerging early.
“I didn’t even know that, but I knew we won a lot of weekly awards. To get three first team and two second team all-conference kids told me we had something special last year,” said Rehr, whose team had a 13-6 record overall. “I think the whole year was a pleasant surprise. This year, honestly, we wanted to see if last year was a fluke. We came up short in two matches, but we came close to the goal. We really didn’t have a spring – normally, you can break things down, revamp your team and fix problems, and we just had seven days where we could do something.”
There’s a logical core on the floor for Houston, with sophomore setter Annie Cooke running the show (471 assists, 10.02 per set) and primary outside hitter Abbie Jackson piling up kills (171 overall, 3.64 per set). Winning teams will always need a sense of balance, and the Cougars are enjoying that as well with good kill totals from Idaho transfer Kennedy Warren (109), Isabel Theut (98) and Kortlyn Henderson (92). Defensively, there’s a constant push at the net from Rachel Tullos (57 blocks).
Developing more touches and impact from the middles and establishing a deeper bench have also been important developments. It’s led to nice wins over Power 5 teams such as Oregon State, Oklahoma and Mississippi State and competitive losses to Texas A&M and Alabama.
“And there are growing pains that come with that success, the growing pains of being on somebody’s scouting report. But we’ve been able to rely on an all-conference setter and an all-conference outside (in Cooke and Jackson),” Rehr said. “Abbie is not just a banger; she can cut-roll and play any style she needs and can pass with the best of them, a true volleyball player.
“Kennedy came in as a transfer to help take some pressure off Abbie. We’ve had some great matches from (others), and we were looking to get some balance because we were so heavy on Abbie and Kortlyn last year. We can move some things around and not just be stuck praying that Abbie or Kortlyn doesn’t get hurt.”
Houston was picked second behind Central Florida in the AAC preseason poll, another sign of respect and evolution from 2016-18 when the Cougars were 34-58 overall.
Rehr readily admits there’s a long line of accomplished programs in and around Texas, which on the surface makes it hard for Houston to get noticed, even if there are recent improvements to facilities, locker rooms and practice courts. The Cougars are starting to get longer looks at players who have entered the transfer portal, and it’s likely more bright light will shine when the school moves to the Big 12 Conference in a couple of years, making Houston more appealing to the vast supply of top-shelf club talent in the city that, for now, tends to look elsewhere.
“There are moments where it’s exactly that, a daunting challenge. I’ll be at these huge club events and be surrounded by those who are there for the same talent you’re after,” Rehr said. “Big names, Power 5’s, and you’re fearful of getting beat out because of their name. But I like being the underdog, building and rebuilding. There’s the potential of this program, knowing the talent around … we’re elevating everything. We’ve got to improve the brand and the outlook on Houston volleyball; we thought it would be three or four years, but we’ve exceeded expectations. Eventually, the kids who should be here will stay home.”
Houston will start against Tulsa and Wichita State (6-3), then take on a serious test with four consecutive league matchups (Tulane, Temple, UCF and South Florida).
Plans for the 2021 NIVC continue to move forward; Houston coach Dave Rehr has participated twice in the event, once while at Arkansas State and once with the Cougars. Said Rehr:
“In basketball they have (multiple) postseason tournaments, and teams rally around tournaments like that. To teach your volleyball team how to play in December is crucial. To have the experience of extra practice and matchups against really quality teams can only make your team better. The volleyball community needs to rally behind the NIVC and see it for the value it is.”
Preparations for the 2021 National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC) are continuing; updates will be posted at www.womensnivc.com and @WomensNIVC
By Kyle Koso
One factor that has allowed the Loyola Marymount University volleyball team to burst out for seven straight victories this season is their ability to play with pace.
Being able to recover just as quickly is the next task, as the Lions (7-1) are fending off some injury and fatigue concerns in advance of their Sept. 16/18 home-and-home matchup with Cal Poly. But it’s going to be tough to jostle LMU from an optimistic mindset, as the squad responded to a season-opening loss to No. 8 Purdue with an upset of Kansas, followed by sweeps at tournaments at Fresno State and Liberty.
“We’ve worked a ton offensively in the last month or so, establishing our speed, and we’re playing pretty fast right now,” said fifth-year head coach Aaron Mansfield. “When this system is running, it’s pretty hard to stop. The other big thing is, we’re 20th in the country in opponents hitting percentage; we have an aggressive serving mentality and want to put a ton of pressure on our opponents, and we’ve been able to do that.”
Now, the Lions were up at 4 p.m. ET last Sunday in order to start the trip back home and haven’t been able to practice since (non-COVID illnesses have gotten in the way). The energy of youth is certainly on LMU’s side, with five freshmen starting, including offensive powerhouse Kari Geissberger, who ranks seventh in the country in kills per set at 4.79, with 139 overall. Classmate Isabella Bareford, praised by Mansfield as one of the strongest setters in the nation, sits 16th in assists (11.03 per set).
Athletically, the Lions are holding up their end as well, as Mansfield has brought in some impressive length. Geissberger is 6-foot-5, Audrey Klemp is 6-3, Emmie Walters is 6-3, and 6-1 outside hitter Rose Booth (70 kills) is 6-1; it’s a group that has emerged from Mansfield’s wide-ranging recruiting efforts that include out-of-state players.
“What we’ve done is get them looking at the right things so they can utilize their size and put themselves in a good spot to score points, block, play defense,” Mansfield said. “This is the deepest the roster we have ever been in terms of talent and sheer size. Like with that Kansas (match), that’s traditionally a very physical team with good arms and offensive power, but we never felt like we didn’t have an answer physically.
“Our 2019 and 2020 recruiting classes were ranked Top 30 nationally; we loaded up in quantity and got a lot of kids who were our top choices. I had this vision of who we wanted … we’re starting to see the fruits of that labor, although we have a long way to go. We have the capacity to get a lot better, and I’m proud how this group is so invested in being here.”
One of the topics LMU must confront on basically a year-to-year basis is the competitive muscle of the West Coast Conference, where it gets a little numbing sometimes as BYU and San Diego usually claim the upper hand. Those teams are both ranked in the AVCA D-I Top 25 at the moment (BYU 15th, San Diego 21st), and this happens to be a season where WCC foe Pepperdine is also blessed with a long, strong roster and sits No. 24 in the rankings.
Breaking through all those top-end obstacles requires not just tenacious physical effort, but the ability to keep emotions and mindsets aimed the right direction. LMU has some recent positives, to be sure, beating then-No. 1 BYU in 2018 to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament and reaching the second round for the first time since 2003.
“That’s the reality of playing sports; the past 12 years, BYU and San Diego have been first and second. That really hasn’t changed,” Mansfield said. “You can talk about ‘playing our game and we can beat anyone’ but you have to earn the right to believe that. (Those 2018 wins) set the tone, by far the biggest wins here in the past five years, and that (validated) the work put into that point. We beat San Diego at home last year, again with five freshmen.
“Now, tradition is tradition, history is history. But our players are realizing that while there are trends in the past 10 years, we’re starting to believe we can compete with them when we play our brand.”
Loyola Marymount will look to keep that blend of quick-hitting offense and strong defense in play. Mansfield brought in three new assistants for 2021, and they’ve tweaked some blocking and net presence topics that have already showed up in the stats. That said, the Lions will be watching closely to make sure this great start isn’t the primary highlight from 2021’s journey.
“We’ve been rocked by injuries the past two years; our two middles tore their ACL’s in the first match last year, and we lost our best player the year before that,” Mansfield added. “Every team has injuries, but it’s been a big issue here. We’ll try to control what we can from a (workload) standpoint.
“Serving is the premier skill in the game, it’s the great neutralizer, and we have that aggressive mentality. If we can find ways to serve tough and in, that’s the best shot of beating whoever we are playing.”