You can’t just show up on the door of a long-struggling volleyball program and declare the hard times are over.
With years of disappointment stacked up like firewood from the nearby Wasatch mountains, Weber State volleyball struggled to shed the weight of a rough start to the 2010s – a 28-98 resume over four seasons before the arrival of head coach Jeremiah Larsen in 2015. But the Wildcats have figured out how to avoid being defined by those hard times and currently sit at 26-8, set to play Thursday in the quarterfinals of the 2019 National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
The match at Tulsa (17-15) is set for 7 p.m. ET.
This year marked the first time Weber State had reached the Big Sky tournament final in 31 years, and the Wildcats were a whisper away from earning an NCAA Tournament berth before falling to Northern Colorado in five sets.
“It says a lot about our character and who we have in the program. When you lose a match like that (15-13 in the fifth), dealing with the emotions of disappointment … they knew it was important to get back on the horse and keep playing and competing,” said Larsen, who was 6-22 in his first year in Ogden before recalibrating Weber State’s position in the Big Sky and elsewhere. “We’re trying to build a program that has the ability to reach the postseason; Weber State hasn’t been in the postseason in 31 years, so it’s a step in that progression.
“We also want more time with this volleyball team; our players love playing together, and they’ll miss the seniors … that was the group that came in and changed our program from a six-win team to a 20-win team. We’re trying to squeeze out every moment we can with a team we love to play and compete with.”
The Wildcats have many places to turn offensively, and the numbers have been undeniably impressive. With junior setter Ashlyn Power dealing the cards (she’s in the national top 30 with 11.02 assists per set), kills come from many places – redshirt freshman Dani Nay has 383 kills, senior Megan Gneiting has 362 kills and junior Rylin Roberts is next at 310 kills.
Everything from the early-impact abilities of young players to the rigor and stability of the upperclass contributors makes the struggles of the past fell very distant even to Larsen, who certainly understood the enormity of his task.
“It seems so long ago. The first thing we decided was to set some standards as a program, what it meant to play high-level volleyball, and we went out and recruited character kids who were good at volleyball,” he said. “We had to grab the right type of players who weren’t afraid to do hard things. Turning a program around is not something everybody can do or wants to do. The culture took off from there. Those kids changed the culture for the better, so I turn it to them and who they are. After they came to the program, it became quite simple.
The first impact group of recruits included Gneiting, Roberts, Aubrey Saunders and Hannah DeYoung. Just as Larsen was getting the Wildcats into a better position, the record fell to 9-20 in 2017, but to everyone’s credit, that just turned out to be a fixable hiccup in the plan.
“2017 was interesting. Rylin Roberts went on a mission, Aubrey Saunders got ill, and we had a key player shut down with a shoulder injury – but we don’t see that as a step back in the program,” Larsen said. “We made the conference tournament, we were competitive and were able to finish through adversity. If anything, we look back at that as a growth season and what propelled us to the 18-win season (in 2018.) A lot of programs would have looked at as a step back, but we were still able to show something that was lacking in the programs for (a number of years).”
Tulsa’s lineup will be a challenge with its frontline height, but Weber State feels it has a road map for success regardless of the opponent. The team is in the national top 30 in blocks per set and just outside that rank in opponent’s hitting percentage, so there’s plenty of defense the Wildcats can present.
“Our depth has been our thing. Sam Schiess has been effective in the middle, and Kennedy Williams has come in multiple times and saved the day. That’s what we thrive on, that we are a collective team,” Larsen added. “With that mentality and the way we balance the offense and spread it out, it’s very potent. When we receive the serve well, we are hard to stop. Our defense is potent, also. We digs balls, turn it at a nice level and get kills. Hard to stop when we get rolling like that, when we serve receive and serve well.”