Marquette volleyball made their fifth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance last season. That’s an impressive enough feat, as it’s also the fifth appearance in program history. We also have to pay tribute to what head coach Ryan Theis accomplished last year. In going from Year One to Year Two, Theis lost 75% of the total attacks on his roster, not to mention the loss of the reigning Big East Player of the Year in Autumn Bailey. He essentially had to re-invent his offensive flow on the fly, and holy hell, did everything really work out well for Theis.
The transition from Year Two to Year Three will be less difficult for Theis. Marquette had just two seniors last year, and both were role players at best. Every major contributor from last year returns, and they’re going to be bolstered by some pretty impressive freshmen.
We’ll get to the newcomers at a later date, but for now, let’s kick off our look at the returning stars for Marquette as the Golden Eagles prep for the season opener against #7 USC.
The discussion of Marquette’s primary attackers starts with Taylor Louis. Hell, I’ll admit to engineering this article to start with the outside hitters just so we would talk about Louis first. That’s what happens when you finish fifth in the country in kills per set and break the program record for kills in a season as a redshirt freshman. Yeah, that’s right: We get three more seasons of Louis annihilating the hell out of volleyballs. It shouldn’t be a surprise to you that Louis was a unanimous choice to the preseason all-Big East team, and while I would have named her preseason Player of the Year (Creighton’s Jaali Winters got the honor), if the Golden Eagles play like the veteran squad that they are, then we’ll see who stands tall at the end of the season.
If I had one quibble with how Marquette played last year, it would be that Louis had more than twice as many attacks as any other player on the team. Joy Miley finished the year second on the team in kills per set, but only hit .193 in her first year in Milwaukee after transferring from Long Beach State. If she can display the promise that she showed coming out of high school as the #24 recruit in the country, then her threat could free up Louis even more. Miley’s sophomore season at LBSU was cut short after 12 matches due to injury, so perhaps she was still ever so slightly hampered by that last year. Amanda Green rounds out the returning outside hitters for Marquette. She’ll be a redshirt freshman this year after sitting out in 2015. Green went to the same high school as Louis, and it’d be one hell of an accomplishment if Theis could turn two straight hitters from Niles (IL) North into lethal attacking options.
Marquette’s featured player is on the outside, but the deepest position on the court is in the middle. Meghan Niemann has been an all-Big East performer since her redshirt freshman season, and as a unanimous choice to the preseason all-conference team this year, there’s no reason to think that she won’t make it four in a row at the end of the 2016 campaign. She finished 2015 with the fourth best kills average on the team and her .314 hitting percentage ranked as the 7th best in the Big East.
It wasn’t the best hitting percentage on the team, though, as that belonged to Jenna Rosenthal. The 6’6" engineering student finished her redshirt freshman campaign with the sixth best hitting percentage in the Big East at .316 and the fourth best block average, too. She also averaged just over two kills per set while finishing with the second most attacks on the team. Rosenthal went to China with USA Volleyball’s college national team over the summer as one of three Golden Eagles to spend time over the break with a national team camp. Louis and Green were the other two, although they stayed stateside as part of a 36 player High Performance event.
Teal Schnurr rounds out the group of returning middle hitters. She played in just 86 of MU’s 124 sets last season, but contributed to 59 of 60 sets in Big East action. After a down year offensively as a sophomore, Schnurr bounced back as a junior to post a career best 1.23 kills/set while hitting .226.
Sara Blasier comes into the 2016 as the most prolific returning setter in the Big East. Her 10.36 assists/set average was the third best in the league last season, making her the only non-senior that averaged more than 10 assists. She was unfairly barred from a preseason all-Big East honor because the league uses a position-free ballot and the coaches ended up with a 12 woman all-league team that didn’t have a setter on it. Absurd. Blasier quietly finished with the third best dig average on the team last year, so she’s not just a specialist.
I suppose we should mention Abby Julian here, because the next category will get a little crowded. The redshirt freshman from Lewis Center, Ohio, is listed on the roster as a setter/defensive specialist, but for right now, she’s probably Blasier’s backup. Julian posted 20 assists in three sets during Marquette’s open scrimmage on Saturday, and yes, an average of 6.7 assists is not good. However, the coaches jumbled up the lineups in between each set, so without having been there, it’s hard to say if that’s as bad as it sounds. She may have ended up playing some DS on a team with Blasier, and given that she finished with 15 digs, that definitely seems possible.
I get that there’s more that goes in to these kinds of things than just pure stats, but I continue to struggle to understand how Lauren Houg was not all-Big East a year ago. If you want to nitpick about how Seton Hall’s Tessa Fournier deserved Libero of the Year even though Houg had her beat in digs per set by 0.01 on average, fine. I don’t get why she was left off the team as the most prolific libero in the conference. I definitely don’t get why she was left off this year’s preseason all-league team, but hey, I guess I have to admire a dedication to not moving off of your previous determined position, right?
Houg’s joined on the backline by fellow senior Ellen Hays, who nearly doubled her digs per set average from 2014 last year. Her 3.11 per frame average was second best on the team and couldn’t have been that far away from the top 10 in the Big East with 10th place coming in at 3.38. With Riley Burchett, who played in every set as a freshman last year, electing to step away from collegiate volleyball altogether after last season, there’s going to be a bunch of available time for Hays to get on the court.
Nikki Barnes is the final returning DS on the roster, but she had just three more digs (19) as services aces (16) last season. She appeared in 87 sets, but it was largely as a service replacement. Between Houg and Hays, as well as transfer Manon Geoffroy, I don’t expect Barnes’ role on the team to change all that much this season.