photo by ENP Photography
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 you’re trying to author a notable volleyball season, it’s always important to ring up some signature wins.
Much is left to be done for the 2019 version of the Towson Tigers, but there’s no arguing with the first chapter, which has the team at 12-2 overall and enjoying a terrific start to Colonial Athletic Association play. The Tigers went on the road and took down Delaware (another team with double-digit victories) as well as James Madison, the preseason favorite to win the conference.
Towson head coach Don Metil knows the route in guiding his team to quality finishes (the Tigers were 104-26 from 2014-17), so there’s nothing curious about his team responding in a big moment. But each roster, each specific group, needs those moments that prove all the hard work and sacrifice is bearing fruit.
“We showed well in both, and the unique things is we had to perform differently in both matchups. Delaware, we had to contain a very heavy-laden outside team, and with JMU, the mindset of getting over the hump,” said Metil, whose first team at Towson (2013) went 10-24 before going 27-5 the next season. “Not only were they the preseason favorite, they’ve knocked us out of postseason play on numerous occasions. We’re in the gym hoping to learn about situations we can better control when we play JMU the next time. We played really well in sets 3 and 4 after we dropped set 2; this team responded very well. At certain points in sets 3 and 4, to be up 10 points on the preseason favorite, is a statement in itself.
“Coming into this year, Delaware is on the rise, Elon looks good, you can’t overlook a Charleston program that knows how to win, and Hofstra … we have some really important matches coming up where we can’t falter in execution.”
Indeed, the schedule marches on with home matches against Northeastern (7-7, 1-1 Colonial) on Friday and Hofstra (8-6, 1-1) on Sunday. Senior setter Marrisa Wonders agreed that the road sweep is a sign that the Tigers are physically and mentally in a good spot.
“Both of these wins have been really big,” said Wonders, who is averaging nearly 11 assists per set. “Everyone says Delaware is our rival, and with James Madison being ranked atop the conference … this summer when we were practicing, we knew we had the abilities to be a really good team, but we weren’t sure how that would transfer against a team like JMU. It was great for us and such an encouragement to beat them in four (sets); we showed the ability to play really well.”
One reason Wonders is piling up assists is the depth and breadth of Towson’s hitting crew, which has three players topping 100 kills and two others at 99 and 98. Emily Jarome leads the way with 146 and is fulfilling the promise shown last year as a freshman; senior Olivia Finckel has 136 kills, and there’s been impressive work done by freshman Lydia Wiers (109 kills, .424 hitting percentage).
Wiers’ emergence has come as a bit of a surprise, as she’s cashing in on seam opportunities and the 1-on-1 chances that come when defenses are keying elsewhere.
“They are all really dynamic, and it’s great to have so many options to go to,” Wonders said. “With our passing being as good as it’s been, it’s nice for me to be able to read (the opponents) and know what we have available and what we don’t. We can go to anyone at any time.”
Wonders has been the steadying force, possibly because she’s long familiar with how things change and evolve on a volleyball team. While she had plenty of touches as a freshman and sophomore, she split time on the job in 2018, but is now steering the ship as the primary setter.
Teammates still remember last year when Wonders was fighting through a shoulder injury, affecting her to the extent she had to serve underhanded during a hard-fought match with Ohio State.
“I was in four rotations as freshman and sophomore, then last year split it with a senior,” she said. “It could be frustrating me, for the (opposite hitters) and the other setter; it’s hard to maintain as much involvement when you get subbed out, and when you get put back in, you have to re-energize yourself. We’re all so competitive and working so hard in the practice gym to prove we deserve time on the court. You get motivated to keep pushing if you’re not on the court.”
One other dynamic that Towson had to tackle this year was shaking free of last year’s struggles, which led to the Tigers finishing just 17-15 overall. There were some tough five-set losses and just enough difficulty dealing with injuries to keep the team from stringing together long stretches of top-caliber play, except for a six-match winning streak at the end of the season.
But the presence of so many quality hitters in 2019 has been a game-changer; the team has also diversified itself defensively to deal with the absence of Anna Holehouse, the program’s all-time leader in digs and the unquestioned focal point of a critical aspect of the game plan.
“Those (season, 2018 and 2019) were two different animals … I thought we had quote, unquote, horses in the program last year at least in the oppo positions, so we scheduled a bit tougher. Looking back, we had injuries that maybe didn’t allow us to perform against Ohio State, and lost in five sets to Missouri at home,” Metil said. “Looking back, 17-15 was pretty good, all things considered. We dropped a five-setter to Princeton; this year’s squad maybe established themselves early on when we beat Princeton in Week 2, 3-0.
“You could be talking to a team that’s 14-0 right now. We’re learning how to respond in situations where we start to let big leads slip away, like when we were up 17-9 in set 4 against Coastal (Carolina) and then lost in the fifth. This crew is incredibly bright, and that allows us to focus more on educating them, how to behave and respond and control emotions ... to control negative self-talk and get through those situations.”