Volleyball Looks to Maintain Success Amid Changes
Aug. 27, 2014
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Picked second in the preseason conference coaches' poll, the Golden Eagles are tasked with overcoming the loss of AVCA Third Team All-American Elizabeth Koberstein at setter, who paced one of the nation's most prolific offenses last season.
The good news for Marquette and first-year head coach Ryan Theis is that the Golden Eagles return 93 percent of their kills from a season ago, when they ranked eighth in the country in that category. How quickly they can integrate those returning hitters with a new setter and libero will go a long way to determining if they can successfully defend their BIG EAST title.
"We have plenty of firepower and physical play in our returning hitters and we are going to do our best as a group to get them the ball with good serving, passing and setting," Theis said. "We've got some pretty good attackers and we just have to make sure we get them the ball in good situations."
The returning group of hitters is led by 2014 BIG EAST Preseason Player of the Year Autumn Bailey, along with fellow unanimous preseason all-conference picks in redshirt sophomore Meghan Niemann and senior Lindsey Gosh. That trio plus outside hitters Nele Barber and Erin Lehman will provide a tremendous amount of options offensively, regardless of who captures the starting job at setter.
Freshman Taylor Louis could also factor in as she recovers from a preseason injury.
Bailey led the league in BIG EAST matches with 4.61 kills and 5.35 points per set, while hitting .306 in conference play on her way to BIG EAST and AVCA East Coast Region Freshman of the Year awards. Niemann hit .368 in conference play while Barber burst onto the scene once league action began and averaged 3.22 kills on a .310 hitting efficiency during the season's final two months.
Niemann and Barber each earned All-BIG EAST Championship honors as the Golden Eagles claimed their first conference tournament crown last season.
Gosh once again ranked among the nation's elite from the service line as a junior with 52 aces and continued her ascent as an efficient right-side hitter. The southpaw has improved her hitting percentage by 100 points in each collegiate season and hit a combined .297 in 2013 with 2.65 kills per set.
Gosh and Bailey ranked first and second in aces during BIG EAST play and their ability to keep opponents off balance could be huge as the Golden Eagles make adjustments on the fly early in the season at setter and in the back row.
"The ability to score immediate points or get teams out of system is huge," Theis said. "We've got to come up with the right formula from the service line. We would like to have six players who can serve aggressively in bounds, but that is a tough combination to get. It is just a matter of seeing who can serve a consistent ball and get the team out of system the most. How can we do that without committing too many errors?"
Save for a returning AVCA All-American in Niemann at one of the middle hitter positions, the second spot has had a great deal of competition throughout fall camp. Sophomore Teal Schnurr started the final 16 matches of last season after taking over for Jackie Kocken, while the Golden Eagles add a couple of talented newcomers in redshirt junior transfer Courtney Kintzel and freshman Jenna Rosenthal.
Kintzel averaged 1.22 blocks per frame as an All-Missouri Valley Conference Second Team selection in 2013 at Northern Iowa, while Rosenthal, at 6-foot-5, provides a tremendous block but could potentially redshirt.
Over the last few seasons, the Golden Eagles have typically ranked in the bottom half of the BIG EAST in terms of blocks, but Theis sees that as an area of strength as the season opener approaches.
"It is just a matter of early touches. I really like our blocking, defense and our ability to kill it," said Theis, whose Ohio squad ranked in the top-30 nationally in blocks last season. "We've got some good arms out there, we just have to make sure that we are serve-receiving, serving and setting well. If we are doing those things we can rack up some wins."
The role of offensive orchestrator will fall into the hands of either redshirt sophomore Mary Nilles or freshman Gabby Benda at setter. The competition at the position has been evolving over the course of the preseason and while Nilles is entering her third year at Marquette, Benda has been on campus since the end of June.
"It is really competitive," Theis said. "Mary and Gabby have gone back and forth and we are looking for who can set the most hittable balls and who can get hitters in the best position. It might be a 6-2 offense or a 5-1 with one setter or the other. The season will have its ebbs and flows with that process. You will see both of them this fall at some point, I can guarantee that. Whether it is right off the bat and in what system, I can't say."
In the back row the Golden Eagles lose program stalwarts Julie Jeziorowski, Rachel Stier and Catherine Mayer to graduation, but return junior Ellie Rauch, who started all 32 matches as a sophomore. Rauch hopes to fill some of that leadership void in 2014 and has seen competition for playing time with returnees Lauren Houg and Nicki Barnes, along with transfer Ellen Hays, a 2013 Mid-American Conference All-Freshman Team selection at Toledo.
Rauch, Houg and Hays all took turns at libero during Marquette's preseason scrimmage on Saturday afternoon, and along with middle hitter and setter, it is still a position unsettled in the final days before the opening weekend.
"It is interesting in the back row where we are having a really competitive battle for libero and defensive specialist," Theis said. "We just had role meetings with our back row players and we don't know. If you are playing well you are going to stay in and if you are playing poorly we are going to give someone else an opportunity. There are a lot of position battles that way on our roster."
The vast competition throughout the roster touts the depth Theis has at his disposal during his first season in Milwaukee, and the challenges he faces in penning his starting lineup against UC-Santa Barbara on Saturday.
"We are very pleased with the level of competitiveness and the number of players who have the ability to help us as a team," Theis said. "We would like to see a little more consistency so we can formulate a lineup, but our depth will allow us to rotate players and be successful. There is competition at literally every position and it will be really interesting to see how it plays its way out."
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