by Kyle Koso
For Sacramento State volleyball head coach Ruben Volta, dipping into the transfer portal and dealing with the mystery of how his new players might mix with the old, was no doubt a trip to the unknown.
But another thing Volta didn’t know, or want to know, was the feeling of seeing his Hornets struggle to reach their ceiling in 2023.
So, Volta welcomed two brand-new setters to the squad in junior Hailey Plugge (Wichita State) and sophomore Kate Doorn (Idaho) and got introductions and any awkwardness solved early with spring practice, beach season and a trip to Portugal and Spain over the summer. With a senior-dominated roster in step with the transition, Sacramento State (21-11) rumbled to the Big Sky Conference regular season title and reached the league’s postseason tournament semifinals.
The Hornets will try to cap a season of excellent play with a run in the 2023 NIVC, hosting a four-team regional and taking on UNLV (19-12) on Thursday at 10 p.m. ET. The Rebels won the NIVC in 2021; the Hornets played in the event in 2017, a season where they went 26-10.
Volta, in his 16th year at Sacramento State, took a team that was picked to finish in the middle of the Big Sky standings to the top of the pile as the roster stayed in step with the direction of Doorn (665 assists) and Plugge (659 assists). Volta said he saw the elements falling into place before the season began in late August.
“We’ve felt like that the last couple of years. We saw a roster that could be competing for a championship, and bringing in two transfers that were setters, it seemed like good time for a foreign tour,” Volta said. “Something to get that extra training and competing with our team as we were returning a pretty full roster of starters. Throughout the regular season, we had a good record, and boy, there were a lot of close matches and close sets — we were able to win those pretty much throughout.
“We had them last spring as well, and we did play beach — there wasn’t a lot of indoor training, but there was a lot of working in small groups. In Europe, we started to get an idea of some lineups we thought could be successful. I’d run 5-1 year before; with this roster and the number of attackers we had I thought the 6-2 would be a good idea.”
The Hornets went 12-1 to start Big Sky Conference play and earned some nice wins ahead of that — a 3-0 sweep of Iowa and a 3-2 nail-biter over Winthrop, another team in the 2023 NIVC. Doorn (5-foot-11) and Plugge (6-0) handled their fresh assignments with confidence and consistency.
“Both the setters have some size and could play front row as well, so this was a challenge,” Volta said. “It’s been nice having that size at setter; there are times we pass balls really tight up to the net; our middles have been good attackers and our setters are pretty skilled with one hand … and traditionally you wouldn’t have tall setters playing back row, but they’re both very good on defense as well.”
Volta has had to tweak the hitter mix on occasion, and then even re-tweaked it back to something he had tried before, all part of keeping the Hornets playing to their potential.
“Going into the Florida tournament (Sept. 7-9), I thought we were in a good place and playing pretty well. Taking on Florida first (a 3-2 loss), we played well, a fun match with a lot of energy,” he said. “The rest of the tournament I thought we were inconsistent. Coming off that, we had stretch of matches, maybe we were fatigued, but I changed lineups right after that. I was still searching for the right mix. We started conference with that lineup, and in the middle of it, in October, I reverted back to the lineup we played in Florida. That’s the one we used the rest of the way.”
Another source of reliability through it all was senior Bridgette Smith, who earned Big Sky player of the year honors and became the first Hornet to earn first-team accolades three times in a career. She has team-best totals of 410 kills, 30 aces, and is second in digs at 262.
“She’s just such an all-around player, and so skilled. Even undersized (at 5-10), it’s her blocking and technique and vision,” said Volta, the 2023 Big Sky coach of the year. “She’s a great server and can play every part of the game. She can hit in the back row, and she might be our best passer. Teams don’t typically try to serve her; someone may try to and see if they can wear her down, but she hangs in there and passes well. She carries a big load. A really good arm swing and is super creative as an attacker.”
Sacramento State also got powerfully useful campaigns from its senior middles in Kalani Hayes (263 kills) and Tiyanane Kamba-Griffin (167 kills). While not the skyscraping tower-types you might normally see in the middle, both had superior hitting percentages.
Junior Ellie Tisko added 312 kills and senior Caitlin Volkmann tallied 296 kills; senior Caty Cordano has 504 digs.
If Volta had that wise and thoughtful way to prepare his team back in the summer, it’s a skill that comes in handy right now ahead of the NIVC. The Hornets were sobered by coming up short in their drive for the NCAA tournament, but it’s a group that should bounce back swiftly.
“It’s an experienced team, and it was something we talked about,” he added. “In 2017, I don’t the think the team was necessarily prepared for the NIVC, but we talked and saw that many teams from our conference had gone to the tournament in recent years. I think it’s helped them in the Big Sky. We were hoping for the NCAA’s this year, but I think our team is pretty eager to get out there and play together again.”