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.”