With the conference chases in the 2023 season coming to a boil, the NIVC looks at some of the programs in the thick of it as we track the depth and competitive excellence found throughout D-I volleyball.
by Kyle Koso
Time and time again, volleyball players may not appreciate the span of their talents, and it takes a perceptive coach to convince those athletes they’ve got something special cooking.
And on occasion, coaches are told the same thing.
Johnna Bazzani felt her coaching career had begun harmoniously enough with her assistant gig at Eastern Kentucky, moving straight from her time as a setter at San Diego State onto the sidelines with the Colonels. After a few years the tune changed dramatically as Lori Duncan stepped down after two-plus decades and eyeballed the young Bazzani, still well short of her 30th birthday, as the next in line.
The haste of these developments put Bazzani on a learning curve steeper than a secret jeep trail in nearby Daniel Boone National Forest. But her stamp on the program is clearly present in 2023, as EKU sits at 18-6 overall (8-4 in the Atlantic Sun Conference) and is on the doorstep of clinching a berth in the ASUN tournament and a chance to earn a spot in the NCAA postseason mix. Next up are weekend matches on the road versus Central Arkansas (7-17, 1-11) and North Alabama (14-10, 6-6).
Progress has hardly been a simple assignment for the Colonels; EKU lost 42 matches in Bazzani’s two seasons that wrapped around the messy, COVID-rattled 2020 campaign, and her team reached .500 (15-15) last season. But this year, the ability of the squad to truly execute her vision has led to something special, including a 13-match winning streak and a great five-set win over Lipscomb (15-7, 10-2) on Oct. 28.
“I was fortunate to have been working under Lori Duncan as an assistant for five years; when I started my coaching journey right after I finished playing, EKU was my first home, but I don’t know if I truly thought I’d be here very long,” said Bazzani, two-time Mountain West setter of the year who took over as EKU head coach in late 2018. “I’m from the West Coast … I didn’t necessarily think being an assistant for that long and then jumping into a head coaching job was my instant plan. Lori ended up sitting me down and said she was thinking about retiring and wanted me to take over the program. I was like, ‘What?’ At age 27 then, I wasn’t sure I was ready for this, I kind of thought about making a few stops along the way before (taking something over).
“The big thing … youth is great in this sport, and this was a perfect time for transition and a rebuild. I knew there were things I wanted to implement and change, (tweaks) with recruiting to make it my own. This year, we’re seeing some success that’s resulted from the work I put in, our staff, recruiting good kids and training how I was trained and what I’ve learned about it. That was my journey, and it’s been exciting. I had a chip on my shoulder at the beginning, knowing I had a lot to prove. But I knew that time would tell and I had to be patient.”
The 2023 roster was picked to finish sixth in the preseason ASUN poll, but EKU caught fire early and reeled off that long winning streak before coming up against a cold reality – conference road wins can be hard to find. Losses at North Florida and Jacksonville (both teams that sit behind the Colonels in the standings) had that stinging quality, and hearts were still heavy after an Oct. 21 five-set loss at home against league-leading Florida Gulf Coast.
“I expected us to be a good team; we’ve surprised ourselves with how good we actually are. How talented, how competitive,” Bazzani said. “We certainly are talented enough to beat North Florida and Jacksonville, but the team needed to learn about winning on the road. Conference games on the road, they are important. The key to championship-level teams is the mindset to win on the road. That got the better of us. We know we are a top-tier team in the league. Ever since those losses, we turned a corner and have trained every day, trained harder. You’ve seen it in our play from there.”
Last year’s 15-15 record hinted that the Colonels were marching on the right line, but it was a weird year, just their second in the ASUN, and one that left them outside the cut to make the postseason tournament. That result very much motivated the current group, arguably led by senior outside Sarah Mitchell, who plays six rotations and has a team-best 260 kills. Right on her heels is sophomore AG Vandagriff with 249 kills, and Bazzani is particularly pleased she can run some offense through her middles, sophomore Carson Ledford (191 kills, team leader in blocks) and junior Paige Wagers (116 kills). UT Martin transfer Kambree Lucas has 191 kills and 32 aces.
At the controls are two excellent setters in senior Chloe Mason (544 assists, 41 aces) and freshman Emilee Hill (423 assists), who stands 5-foot-11 and looks like a cornerstone asset for EKU going forward. With the regular season about to conclude in a burst – four matches in nine days, all on the road – EKU can sense that an already memorable year has a real chance of being talked about for seasons to come.
“We had lost that confidence, and it’s back. That’s how we have to play, knowing our fate is in our hands and we can control it right now,” Bazzani added. “We have four matches coming where we can continue that. Teams are fighting – we’re in a good spot (for the ASUN tourney), just need to think about getting better and not being stagnant. I can’t wait to see how they will respond. It’s doable to go 4-0, and we are training with the champion mindset that you’ve got to get it done on the road.”
NOTE – Coverage of Eastern Kentucky in 2023 sprang up naturally given the accomplishments of the team this season, but we’d like to remind volleyball fans of the role EKU had in the origins of the NIVC, especially the vision and guidance that came from Geri Polvino. She was the first volleyball head coach for the Colonels and won 627 matches from 1966 until her retirement in 1997.
The Women’s Invitational Volleyball Championship debuted in 1989 with 20 teams, in response to demand for another postseason opportunity within the sport. Administrators at smaller but competitive programs like Western Kentucky, Alabama-Birmingham and Eastern Kentucky did the introductory work of gauging interest and building a format. The teams played at one site, in four five-team pools, with each pool winner advancing to a single-elimination bracket.
After two years, the event was renamed the NIVC. Previous event champions were:
1989 – Wisconsin
1990 – Houston
1991 – Kentucky
1992 – Washington State
1993 – Louisiana State
1994 – Cal-State Northridge
1995 – Wisconsin