A good time to gauge the strength of a team is when the bad times start to pile up.
For the Tulane volleyball squad, a 12-3 start to the 2018 season indicated that third-year coach Jim Barnes and his roster — one packed with underclassmen — had command of the plan, which was to develop as a whole and learn to frustrate the opposition with a balanced attack.
But on the eve of American Athletic Conference play, sophomore right side Kristen Thompson was lost to a knee injury.
The Green Wave lost four straight matches and a chunk of confidence in the wake of adjusting the roster, but Plan B is getting an “A” grade as Tulane has broken off 11 straight victories and stands 23-7, 11-4 in the AAC.
Next up is a tough match at second-place Cincinnati (22-7, 12-3), a huge outcome for both teams since Cincinnati is No. 24 in the NCAA RPI and Tulane is No. 67. Tulane beat Cincinnati in four in New Orleans on October 28, dealing the Bearcats one of their three AAC losses while “holding” Jordan Thompson to 19 kills. Makala Heidelberg had 15 kills for Tulane, Erika Hansel 13 and Dayna Kern 11.
“We knew we’d be better and be a good team, but we also knew we’d need to start two or three freshmen. You’re never quite sure how that will work out, but we did have the depth and talent,” said Barnes, who has also run the show at Lamar, Wyoming and Baylor in his career.
“We started playing really well, then lost our best attacker and blocker and ended up starting a fourth freshman. I needed them to understand what we were going though. They were confused; they knew we were making an adjustment after losing Kristen. And of course when you’re losing (matches), you think we’re terrible at that moment. But we were barely losing sets.”
Starting with a win at Memphis, the Wave’s AAC winning streak has featured an eight-match run where they gave up just four sets overall. There’s a lot of democracy happening on offense with five players owning more than 200 kills, and the group is inspired on the defensive half in ranking sixth in the nation in opponent’s hitting percentage.
It might look a little surprising, as Tulane was just 14-19 last year, but Barnes definitely felt a breakout season was in the works.
“What we’re going to be different at is, we’re going to be the best team on the floor. There may be teams with better individuals at a given position, but we’re good everywhere,” he said. “Our ‘B’ team in the gym is the best I’ve ever had, and they push us every day. It also depends what the other team is giving us; if they are weak in a certain area, we go at it, and maybe the next match looks different. Ultimately, we are winning on the defensive end, because our serve, block and defend is really good.”
One essential pillar in 2018 is junior libero Kaylie McHugh, who Barnes feels is not only the best passer and defender in the AAC, but better than anyone he saw during his days in the Big 12. In terms of fresh faces, Heidelberg has 241 kills (as a 5-foot-6 outside), Yvette Burcescu has 203 kills, and setter Taylor Henigsman handles her half of the task with great touch at 633 assists.
“These freshmen came in fiery; no one doubted them because they could handle it. They hung with us all the time in open gym, and they seemed to catch on real quick,” said junior right side Hansel, who leads the team with 267 kills and hits a sturdy .242. “That was the difference; last year we had a lot of freshmen, too, and that felt more like we needed to ride it out and see what they could do. They play with a mindset like an upperclassmen, how you don’t (tolerate) even a few balls dropping.
“No team knows who the go-to hitter is, because everyone is. The middles keep everyone on their toes, so the pins are having a great time. We have spots to hit, and it’s hard for other teams to close their block on us because they never know who’s getting set. Jim wanted to establish that middle when he came in, and he’s done a great job because it shows up in the hitting percentage.”
Now with the lingering effects of two tough seasons way back in the rear-view mirror (the Green Wave was just 15-49 in 2014-15), Tulane solved its midseason speed bump just fine and may very well be on the road to a postseason tournament berth.
“It speaks to the team and how close we are. No one’s got a big head, and we keep each other in check. We had a little scare last week and went to five (against UConn), but it was expected that we would come back,” added Hansel.
“All the lessons from last year, the team never seemed to give up, nobody acted defeated, and we worked harder every day. Personally, I played knowing it takes just one game to change (the trend). Winning at Memphis started it for us, and working for that one game, winning can become a habit, and then you have that expectation.”