Photo by Julia Kostopoulos
NOTE: 2019 will mark the third year of the revitalized, revamped National Invitational Volleyball Championships, which is a D-I postseason tournament dedicated to expanding the profile of deserving women's volleyball programs. We will check in on various teams through this season, with a particular eye to high-achieving mid-major programs.
by Kyle Koso
When the Green Bay volleyball team launches into Horizon League play this week, you might think the Phoenix is bringing along extra baggage on the demanding trip that has them playing four road matches in the first five on the schedule.
With four losses in pre-conference action, all 3-0 sweeps at the hands of Pitt, Marquette, North Dakota State and Northern Iowa, there was the potential for Green Bay to second-guess the plans and procedures for the 2019 campaign. But there’s no wobble or trouble in sight; Green Bay was the preseason favorite to win the Horizon, and there’s a shared vision with second-year head coach Abbey Sutherland that the demands of difficult matches will lead to a supply of skills needed to prevail as the calendar turns to October and beyond.
It helps to have an NCAA Tournament berth in the resume from 2018, along with last year’s Horizon player of the year (Taylor Wolf, now a junior) and setter of the year (senior Maddie Yoss). Besides, all those heavy-hitting opponents (Pitt is currently No. 4 in the AVCA rankings, with Marquette at No. 10) were on the schedule for a reason.
“Pitt was a great opportunity, because we got to play in the venue where the national championships will be played, which was a great experience overall. Playing Pitt and Ohio State, yes on paper that looks daunting, but you learn something in every loss,” said Sutherland, whose team topped the Buckeyes, 3-1. “Pitt plays really fast, and that helped prepare for Ohio State later that day. And our own opening weekend was tough, with pretty high-level teams for a home tournament. It’s easier to play at home, but the wins over Ohio and Fresno State were huge for us.
“With four matches at the beginning, that’s also a good challenge. Marquette (their invite), that’s close by, so you can be more rested than in doing a long trip … playing them and Northern Iowa, we knew all that would prepare us for conference. We learned a lot; every loss has propelled us to work to get better. Hopefully, playing higher level teams will make us feel more prepared for our very tough conference slate.”
But none of that happens in a vacuum – of course, the losses were sometimes hard to take, and it’s not like players exited the locker room with a case of the giggles as they worked through the reasons why they got swept.
It’s not automatic, turning a negative into a positive.
“That NDSU loss, that was an eight-hour bus trip. It’s a tough play to play, and we were super stressed out the whole match and couldn’t find our groove,” Sutherland said. “We had some great conversations and an awesome week of practice after, where we talked about trying to stay calm. We do meditation every day though an app called Headspace, and that’s helping us. We don’t want to be vanilla, and we work on being more creative.
“Against Marquette and UNI, we were within a couple points in several sets. We talk about effort-based and intentional play, control the controllables. We fix a few points, those matches go a different way.”
Sutherland guided the Phoenix to a 20-win season last year in her first season at Green Bay; the team won the league tournament and reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2003. Getting the roster to adapt to a new face and system required Sutherland to pace herself, figuring how to introduce change but not shocking everyone into submission.
“My big thing was, I had to recruit the returners when I got the job to get them on board. I had to make sure we were on the same page; it took a bit for them to understand the growth-mindset culture, where you have to operate outside your comfort zone and learn from your mistakes,” said Sutherland, who was 146-36 in five years at UW-Stevens Point, including two D-III Final Four appearances. “That’s how we operate in our culture, encouraging them to be daring and brave, to make mistakes. Getting to know them helped. We had a rough preseason last year, then they bought into the process and the drills … a lot of coaches when they inherit a program say, ‘those aren’t my kids,’ but it’s our job to coach them and they are my players. It’s my job to help them grow.”
To that point, roster backbones Yoss and Wolf continue to show improvement, giving the Phoenix that classic combination of terminal hitter and insightful setter. Yoss averages more than 10 assists per set and leads the team in aces, while Wolf averages 4.40 kills per set with a robust .275 hitting percentage. The team is also getting terrific work from junior middle Anna Eaton, while freshman libero Brenna Hesse has been on the court throughout, solidifying a spot that was much more of a mystery this summer.
Wolf has figured out how to absorb some difficult assignments, whether it's dealing with this year’s competitive grind or even last year’s NCAA loss to Wisconsin, where she was left feeling unfulfilled.
“The toughest part is being on the road, the endless hours of repacking bags, throwing laundry around … it’s just the process of going to new places and learning to adapt to new environments,” said Wolf, who kills per set ranks in the national top 30. “We’re together for so many hours, and we really bond and grow from that experience. As a team we focus on our mindset, and we work on it every day. We do meditation, thinking positive thoughts and self-talk, which really helps the team. After a match, we look at the positive outcomes and what we can do to improve on and off the court.
“Against Wisconsin, we put up a great fight and it was a tough loss. They were ready for us. From that, especially, I learned there is so much more you can do to improve. I want to have more confidence in myself to make the good play and continue to get better.”
Wolf knew Hesse from several years ago via a connection with the Northern Lights club program, and the junior knew coming in that the freshman had the tools to thrive.
“I played with her older sister in club, played with her when I was back home on winter breaks. I knew she was a great player, had a great attitude, and knew she could step up,” Wolf said. “She came in and showed what she had, has earned it and improves each day.”
Sutherland is ready to turn her crew loose on the Horizon League – this first push comes at Illinois-Chicago (11-3) on Friday, Sept. 27, then home Sunday versus Milwaukee (13-1). After that, it’s three straight on the road in taking on Oakland, Cleveland State and Youngstown State.
“Maddie is a competitor through and through, and has improved her mental game. She’s figured out how to play for the team and help them. (She and Wolf) are two of the most improved players on our team, and that speak to their character and work ethic,” added Sutherland. “We’ve worked on Taylor’s block game, which has made a difference, and she’s better at attacking from back row. She wants the ball, and I know she’ll keep continuing to grow and work to be that player.
“Anna, one of our middles, has a high volleyball IQ, she studies opponents, she understands the blocking schemes and how to fix that. Her blocking has improved significantly. She’s a little nutty, but that makes it fun to coach. She gets wild and vocal, and what she brings is very fun.”