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14 Months, but Counting No More...the Time is NOW
14 Months, but Counting No More...the Time is NOW
Becky'stxa
Published by BeckysTXA
02-03-2021
14 Months, but Counting No More...the Time is NOW

Back in 2019, on December 6th, the Flyer volleyball team played in the NCAAs. I’m not sure it was our best effort that day. I think the stage got the best of a couple young players. But, with that learning experience and the return of key veteran players, everyone knew 2020 was going to be big for the Flyers. Never in our wildest dreams could anyone imagine there would be no 2020 volleyball for Dayton. It’s taken 14 months…to the day…for the Flyers to face another opponent across the net. On Feb 6 the team will travel to Louisville to play an exhibition against the #12 ranked Cardinals. It will be the toughest match they play this shortened season. Sure it’s only an exhibition. The coaches will modify the format to accomplish seeing players they are evaluating. But for the players, especially the Flyers who didn’t play last fall, it’s a milestone they should not take for granted. The opportunity to COMPETE AT THE HIGHEST LEVEL. Louisville returns 7 of their 8 player rotation from a team that upset Texas to make the Elite Eight in the last tournament. They have also added a talented OH freshman.

Louisville enters the match with a 5-2 record from last fall. They have not played since late October when they split two matches at Pitt. The Cardinals snapped Pitt’s 37-match home win streak. UDPride caught up with Coach Tim Horsmon last week, by email interview, to ask about the players he’s been guiding through these uncertain times.

After a two year hiatus from playing volleyball, Outside Hitter Jamie Peterson returned to the court last season and produced an All-American season. She also picked up the A10 POY and AVCA Regional POY awards. Since then, she’s completed her undergraduate work and is currently working on her masters. This year’s team is more talented than the last, and JPete is our best player. How much better she can become will be key.

“Jamie, as you know, has really only had about a season and a half of her volleyball life as an outside hitter (she played MB in high school),” Horsmon said. “She is still learning how to score and all of the things she can do to impact the game at that position. But, I think you will probably see the most growth in her ball control. She hasn’t been a serve receiver that long either and gets better every day playing floor defense.”

In volleyball there is a saying that everything starts with a good pass. The back row skill of passing a ball perfectly to your setter allows the setter to use all of her hitters, which makes the blocking and digging defense across the net to pause or “wait” to move to defend. Those couple “wait” seconds make all the difference in converting attacks into points.

Volleyball has substitution limitations, so you can’t just use defensive specialists in your back row. You have to have outside hitters that can play six rotations and who can pass well during serve receive and digging an attack by the opponent. Passing is the hardest skill in volleyball. Finding more than one OH that can go 6-rotations is critical to success at the highest levels of the NCAA. Peterson, who plays left OH, will be on the court all six rotations with improved passing skills this season. She will also attack from the back row like last year, giving the Flyers another hitter on the court at all times. She was the only OH last year to play six. In the off-season, Horsmon & Staff found another.

The team added Graduate Transfer (Alabama) Mahalia Swink. She plays right OH which is also referred to as the “Opposite” because it’s the OH position that is opposite your setter slot in the rotation. She came to UD with a reputation as a good passer.

“Mahalia is a natural passer and gives us an option at the opposite position that we haven’t had since I’ve been here,” Horsmon explained. “She is a really skilled player that can do a lot for us with a good all-around game. We can take pressure off of our left side hitters when we need to and try to get Maura in the middle of the court as much as we can.”

Let’s break this comment down. First, taking pressure off the left side hitters. When the pass is off and the setter has to move to get the ball, that limits her setting options. She usually can only deliver the ball to the left OH and the defense knows it. The defense doesn't have to “wait”. The blockers go set up to stop the left hitter and the back row sets up to dig around the block. It’s very hard to avoid a block that’s waiting for you, but if you accomplish that, it’s usually an easy dig/pass to jump start the opponent’s offense. As a hitter, Swink can also attack out of the back, which gives the setter that second option on bad passes. The setter won’t always have to dump the ball to the left and the defense will be forced to “wait”.

The second part of Horsmon’s comment is about getting our Libero Maura Collins in the middle of the court as much as they can. I’ve been following UD Volleyball for 15 years (yikes!) and I’ve never seen a time that UD could play their Libero in the back middle position. They have always had to move the Libero to the back left position - lined up to dig the cross court attacks from the opponents left OHs. With Mahalia in the back for three rotations, it sounds like we will see Maura playing the middle spot more. That makes it much harder for servers and attackers. This will be fun to watch.

The other returning OH starter is Alli Papesh. After earning the A10 ROY award two years ago, she seemed to take a step back in performance last year. SID told me she was seeing a doctor at one point last year and she missed some matches, but no details were provided. She is entering this season recovering from shoulder surgery, which explains a lot.

“Alli is coming off of a shoulder surgery and recovering well,” Horsmon disclosed. “Alli has played in so many big matches for us and seems to play her best at the end of the year. We’re hoping she will get healthy and stronger this spring and compete for time sooner than later.”

As of today, it appears there is an opening at the left OH2 slot in the rotation to start the season. Candidates are redshirt sophomore Mikayalah Van Lanen and sophomore Grace Dynda. We also might see Horsmon move a Middle Blocker to OH. He has a history of doing that. Exhibit #1 is JPete, but there have been many over the years.

With the addition of Swink, the off-season work of JPete and the return of two experienced juniors (Collins and Liz House) plus the addition of two talented freshmen, we will have a very deep back row.

“I like this group of back row players and they are both skilled and relentless,” Horsmon explained. “I think each of them will contribute in big ways this year. I’d probably compare them to the strength of the group we had in 2007-08.”

In 2007, UD had Adrienne Greene playing Libero and she was the emotional “spark-plug” leader of the team that finished 33-2. Greene finished her career in the NCAA record books at #10 in career digs. OH Courtney Norris played 6-rotations. Norris was hired by Horsmon as an assistant coach at Maryland. Horsmon has a lot of respect for both these players, so to compare this year’s group to them says a lot. I had the honor of watching both live in that 5-set marathon St Louis match that produced the point that crossed the net a gazillion times and made ESPN SportsCenter, back when college volleyball was never on TV and streaming video hadn’t come to college sports. Horsmon had Greene take all the serves in that match. He moved the other players off to the side and Greene was the only player left to take the serve. I’ve never seen any coach do that. That’s how good Greene was. After the match when UD had won, I saw Norris in the hallway and she was drenched in sweat and saying she had nothing left. Norris is one of the greatest competitors UD Volleyball has ever had. She left everything on the court every match and could grind out matches and find a way to win. Horsmon is saying this year’s group of back row players have both skill and relentless mindset. That’s exactly what you want in the back row. High praise for sure.

One of the deepest positions on the team is Middle Blocker and yet we only return one starter in Amelia Moore as a redshirt sophomore who earned the A10 ROY award last season. At 6’5’ Moore is one of the tallest players in UD history, second only to All American MB Lindsey Fletemier at 6’6” and current freshman MB Laney Yates who is also 6’6”. Horsmon recruited all three players, but when he returned seven years ago, there wasn’t a lot of height left in the cupboard. He was late in the recruiting cycle in the transition, so forced to find shorter, quicker middles. He made it work with fast sets that beat the block and UD won championships with those players. Today, the college game has many more players that are both very tall and athletic. This will be the first time UD has two in the middle. How excited is Horsmon to be able to “coach height”?

“Very excited,” he said. “Both are very long and have the ability to score and block at a high level. Amelia has become a really strong slide attacker and I believe Laney feels more comfortable in front of the setter, but her slide attacking is improving daily. I also love how Laney takes the ball (at a high point) and can attack to all parts of the court because of that range. Both work really hard and want to be great and that will be the reason both will have great careers here.”

The greatest UD team ever was the 2010 team that was ranked the entire year and finished at #16. The middles were Fletemier and Becky Novacek. Novacek’s signature attack was the slide, but she was 6’2”. Fletemeier was not a slide attacker. Her signature move was the quick set up the middle and she could just flat out hit over the block, which sounds like a skill Yates also has. But, with Moore and Yates, Horsmon now has two tall middles that can both run a slide, hit quick, low balls and high balls in front of the setter. UD adds another 6’6” MB next year. With hard work, this group can absolutely be some of the best MBs to wear a Flyer jersey. That says a lot when you look at all the post-season honors Flyer MBs have collected over the years. The key words are “hard work”.

Finally, we come to the setter position that has seen the most turnover in the last 14 months, but is led by the lone senior on this team, Bridget Doherty. She brings a ton of experience and more importantly, as Horsmon said last season and this year, she is a LEADER.

“Bridget is playing really well right now,” he said, “And has established herself as a leader in this program.”

Doherty, who is 5’10’, started a handful of matches her freshman year in a 1-setter offense and has played the three back row rotations in a 2-setter offense the last two years, paired with other setters who were six-foot tall. So what can we expect now that there are no six-foot setters on the roster?

“We will prepare for both (offenses) and I think there are advantages to both systems,” coach said. “A 2-setter offense gets you another attacker on the court and usually a stronger blocker on the right side as well. You may lose some of the continuity of a 1-setter offense in a 6-2. The 5-1 leaves your best setter on the court the whole match and also saves you some subs to put in your stronger passers/defenders. The 5-1 also allows the freedom for a strong slide hitting middle.”

My two-cents on this topic is a penny short. Prepare all you want, but this team’s personnel looks like a 1-setter offense to me for the following reasons. We are down one starting OH as Papesh recovers. We have TWO slide middles. We have a bunch of great defensive specialists that Horsmon says will contribute. We need a true LEADER on the court at all times. We have TWO six-rotations OHs. And, we have no six-foot option at setter. I started this article with JPete. I’m ending it with Doherty. There are a lot of great players sandwiched in-between, that are superstars in the making. But make no mistake, the Spring 2020 version of UD Volleyball will be driven by JPete and Doherty. They have been in this program longer than any of their teammates. It will be their LEADERSHIP skills that are the most important in the equation.

As one fan pointed out to me last year, they are getting a little tired of hearing about how close the volleyball program is to a Sweet 16. It's time. In a round-about way, the loss of 14 months due to COVID could be what helps motivate this team over the hurdle. Don’t take anything for granted. Go hard every minute of every practice. Focus every point in the exhibit against Louisville, because that's the level of play you will have to beat to make the Sweet 16. 12 regular season matches. Two conference tournament matches. One or two NCAA matches due to a 48-team field. So, yes, we are counting after all. 15-16 matches to the Sweet 16. That’s it. Time is of the essence and the time is NOW.
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