For the past decade and a half, NCAA women’s volleyball fans have been able to count on the sight of San Diego in the rankings and in the mix as one of the notable programs in the country.
But just how the Toreros get it done – which players emerge as they enter their junior and senior years, and which newcomers make a dent – that’s more of a mystery. Head coach Jennifer Petrie simply has a knack for guiding her program through roster churn, and San Diego is looking like its formidable self as the 2017 season comes to life.
The Toreros, currently ranked No. 17 in the AVCA poll and No. 3 in the NIVC/VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major poll, began the season with a loss to No. 11 UCLA but responded with three-set sweeps of then-No. 20 Hawaii and Marquette. After moving past 2016’s disappointing first-round loss to Baylor in the NCAA Tournament, Petrie said this less-seasoned squad is trying to get comfortable with its situation.
“I’m happy to see we are in that consideration every year here in the past 15 years,” Petrie said, “and that’s always exciting to have established that reputation, where no matter who we have returning and no matter who is here, people recognize the program has the ability to be in that top group. That feels really good. Of course, you’ve got to prove yourself every year, and that’s what we’re busy with now.
“We knew it would be a learning process from the start since we graduated a lot of our players who really carried us. We started with a 6-2 (offense) with UCLA and felt we didn’t play like we wanted to. Part of it was first-game jitters, and the other part was just the comfort level with the system. We changed it up against Hawaii, went with more experienced kids, and that provided some confidence, and some leadership emerged.”
San Diego, which has reached the NCAA Tournament 14 times since Petrie took over as head coach in 1999, has experienced some impressive highs in recent seasons. Last year, the Toreros won 18 consecutive matches and rose as high as No. 5 in the AVCA poll, and in 2013 the program beat No. 1 USC and rose as high as No. 2 nationally.
With honorable mention AVCA all-Americans Lisa Kramer and Lauren Schad no longer on campus, the highest ground might look a bit daunting. A new hammer on offense is emerging, however, in senior Jayden Kennedy, who earned West Coast Conference player of the week honors after thumping 37 kills in those first three matches, including 17 kills in the victory against Hawaii.
“We’ve been fortunate that kids by their senior years come out of the shadows, and that’s the case with Jayden, who was behind some all-American seniors last year,” Petrie said. “She has stepped into the role where she understands it’s her coming out, and she can be that player for us. She can lead us in the offense all year, and that’s something she can embrace.”
Kennedy hit the program as an electric freshman from Ontario, Canada, and started 42 of her first 52 matches in her first two seasons. She’s been steady through the trials of people competing for her spot as well as injury, missing nine months in and around her junior year with a knee injury that required microfracture surgery.
Also strong out of the gate is senior libero Lizzy Tardieu, who only had four starts in her first three seasons, and middles Addie Picha and Merve Tanyel, the latter a senior from Istanbul, Turkey.
Providing some very timely assistance is freshman outside hitter Roxie Wiblin, who graduated a semester early and was on campus training with the Toreros in the spring. After losing a player to an ACL injury in the spring, San Diego was able to accelerate Wiblin’s development, and she’s been a factor offensively and defensively.
“We have so many players this season who haven’t had a name in the past, and they are huge, strong contributors. There’s a new libero, middles who are producing – there are new names and new faces who I think will be awesome contributors this year,” Petrie added. “The most satisfying thing is, the system is working, and kids who are juniors and seniors have learned a lot. They are absorbing the culture, waiting for their time and then producing when their number is called.”
San Diego will host the USD Invitational on Sept. 1-2; taking on Georgia Tech on Friday and then Villanova on Saturday morning. The Toreros will conclude with a match Saturday evening against No. 4 Texas.