The NCAA has passed legislation adding the National Invitational Volleyball Championship as a permanent season-ending event for volleyball – Triple Crown Sports brought the event back to life in 2017 and has seen the programs from Ole Miss, Iowa State, Georgia Tech and UNLV claim an NIVC title. The 2022 event will launch with selection night on Nov. 27, with the championship match slated for Dec. 12 or 13.
By Kyle Koso
When it became time to reset the Southern Miss volleyball program, nobody had the luxury to resent the process.
The Golden Eagles wrapped up the 2021 season with a 1-9 record in their final 10 games, with the decision following to change coaches and bring in Jenny Hazelwood. Safe to say, variables galore had to be worked out – the roster had players from every corner of the country, including multiple transfers from other programs, and Hazelwood hadn’t run a college team in eight years.
Adaptability is a hard thing to define, but the group in Hattiesburg appears to have a handle, going 7-2 to start the 2022 season ahead of this weekend’s Jacksonville State tournament and looking primed for their first swings in the Sun Belt Conference, Sept. 23-24 vs. South Alabama. Sophomore Mia Wesley is second in D-I volleyball in kills per set (5.36) and top 10 in aces, with junior setter Kenzie Smith in the top 30 in total assists.
“My staff and I recognized right away there was a lot of talent on the roster, and our biggest thing was figuring out how to get them all on the same page, offensively and defensively, and systematically,” said Hazelwood, who last coached at Mississippi State in 2014 and has since started a successful youth club program as well as worked as a commentator for ESPN and the Southeastern Conference. “It needed to be a team culture, where everyone contributes and embraces their roles. We’ve utilized so many people to win matches, and it’s really cool to see it pay off when they embrace that mindset.”
Hazelwood launched the Infinity Volleyball Academy after her time at MSU, which now features 27 teams, and spent time around the game with her broadcasting chores and also assisting with many USA Volleyball programs. She said getting back into the flow of building relationships and getting people in step with her vision has been the most graceful part of the transition.
“It’s been so much fun; I’ve never felt out of touch. My passion is the volleyball part, and I enjoy the recruiting and the travel, and I’ve really enjoyed getting back into it,” she said.
And why not, with players such as Wesley and Smith setting a tone of accomplishment and determination for all to follow. Wesley was a prep star in Utah and played a year in Portland before crossing the country to start at Southern Miss in 2021; Smith began her college run at Kansas State and has been with the Golden Eagles for two seasons. Transfers from Akron, Central Arkansas, Houston Baptist, Idaho State, New Mexico Military Institute, Presbyterian (South Carolina), San Diego State and Southeastern Missouri also are on hand.
Sophomore middle Cara Atkinson is second on the team in aces and kills, leading the way in blocks, and classmate Megan Harris paces the squad in digs.
Wesley set the Southern Miss freshman record for kills last year and has already earned two Sun Belt Conference offensive player of the week awards in 2022. Smith is a presence at the net, too, sitting second on the team in block assists, and was the MVP of last weekend’s Southern Miss Invite.
“She is incredibly competitive. You’ll see those documentaries where an athlete is competitive at everything, playing cards, and that is Mia. She works incredibly hard,” Hazelwood said. “We saw in the spring she was already one of our best jumpers, could touch 10-foot-2, and she told me, ‘Coach, I’ve got to improve my vertical.’ She was already off to a great start to her career – she added three inches over the offseason. That’s her mindset, and it’s not a chore since it’s her mindset.
“Kenzie is another phenomenal player and a wonderful person. A lot of setters, you have to be selfless. You’re not the one getting the big kill or a lot of the spotlight. You embrace the role of being that driving force that steers the team. Kenzie is a hard worker and very dedicated, and she gets it. Her dad’s a football coach at South Alabama, and you can see she's a coach’s kid.”
The Golden Eagles were not picked as one of the obvious favorites in preseason voting for the Sun Belt, but the team is riding a confident wave as the preseason concludes. Hazelwood has a few topics the team needs to address to improve overall performance, but the hot start has helped build a lot of optimism for the grind ahead.
“We go through stretches when we are a very good serving and passing team, and there are stretches where we serve and … why isn’t there any pace on the ball? Why aren’t we hitting the areas we need? We need that (effectiveness) consistently,” Hazelwood added. “We play a number of players in the back row; ball control is a strength, but there are stretches where the passing is off. It’s more of a focus thing. We don’t want to lose it in those areas at any time, so we can put pressure on opponents with tough serves.
“We want to run the offense freely. We have a great setter and great hitters, so we’re happy with a good pass. We’re not asking them to be perfect, since we have wide range where we can run the offense.”