1 - Who is going to lead Marquette in attacks this season?
This is a bigger issue that you might realize.
We’re headed into Ryan Theis’ fourth season as head coach at Marquette. He’s had two women lead the Golden Eagles in attacks: Autumn Bailey for one season, and then Taylor Louis for the past two. Bailey and Louis didn’t just lead MU in attacks, though. The offense was being primarily routed through them, racking up somewhere between 33% and 36% of the attacks each year. Maybe that doesn’t sound like a lot, but consider this: The second leading attacker has always had less than 20% of the swings under Theis, and that percentage has decreased each year. Nele Barber took 19.3% of the attacks in 2014, Joy Miley was at 16.3% in 2015, and Meghan Niemann was at just 14.2% last season.
It seems important to point out at this juncture that Bailey transferred out of the program immediately after that season, and Louis left after the 2016 campaign. Were there other issues that played a part? Almost assuredly. But I’d wager that the heavy usage wasn’t helping matters.
So now, for the third time in his four seasons, Theis has to replace a sophomore that led his team in attacks. The leading candidate would probably be Allie Barber, but the Cedarburg native and preseason all-Big East honoree came off the bench for all but four of Marquette’s matches last season and didn’t play in 11 sets, while Madeline Mosher started 20 times and missed out on just two sets all season. On the flip side, Barber averaged nearly a full kill more per set on more than twice as many attacks, so it definitely seems like Barber has the advantage.
It might not be either one of them, by the way. Hope Werch racked up over 1,900 kills for Neenah over the past four years and worked her way into a top 80 recruiting ranking according to Prep Volleyball. Both Bailey and Louis got their spots as freshmen (ok, Louis was a redshirt freshman, but still), so it wouldn’t be the craziest thing in the world to see Theis turn the show over to Werch.
2 - Who is going to be the primary setter?
If you’re getting the impression that it might be a little hard for Marquette to earn a seventh straight NCAA tournament berth in 2017, well, you’re not wrong.
In addition to finding a new focal point for the offense, Ryan Theis also needs to find a new setter. After two of the most productive season by a setter in program history, Sara Blasier’s eligibility is up. She walks away from Marquette with the sixth most assists in program history in just two seasons on campus and if she had been around for a full four years, she could have taken a run at Liz Egasti’s 17 year old program record for a career.
Instead, the keys to the Marquette offense are getting handed to someone else. Odds are it will be Lauren Speckman. The sophomore from San Jose, California saw just 32 sets worth of action last season, averaging just 1.84 assists per set. This sounds bad, but please remember that almost all of these appearances were in relief of Blasier, so she usually didn’t play much more than a handful of points at a time. She’s been the only fully committed setter on the roster since the end of the 2016 campaign, so Speckman was getting the reps in the spring. Whether or not that pays off in her earning the starting nod will have to be be seen. Sarah Rose joins the team as a freshman this season and at least in terms of roster construction, she’s going to push Speckman for playing time. There’s also Abby Julian, who is listed as a setter/defensive specialist on the roster. She played in just five sets as a redshirt freshman last season and did not even record an assist, so somehow I don’t think she’ll end up fitting the bill.
3 - Who is going to take up the mantle as libero?
Yep, Ryan Theis has a third incredibly important role on the team to fill thanks to a departure on the roster. Sometimes, I find it amazing that Marquette was still picked to finish third in the Big East given their massive roster questions. Not looking good on you, non-Creighton Big East teams.
Anyway, Lauren Houg is gone after being the only woman to play libero for Theis at Marquette. It was a bit of a surprise that she got the job three years ago, at least based on how her freshman year went, but she ended up as one of the best liberos in the Big East on a regular basis and currently sits in second place on Marquette’s all-time digs chart, trailing only Julie Jeziorowski, the woman she replaced.
Someone is going to have to step into Houg’s shoes here, and somehow, I actually don’t think it’s going to be Manon Geoffroy, MU’s lone returning experienced defensive specialist. This will be Geoffroy’s senior season, and it’s probably best for Marquette in the long term to keep her in the DS role that she played along side Houg. That gives someone else the chance to hold on to the libero position over the next few seasons and give the Golden Eagles continuity there.
The question is, then, who will that be? Abby Julian has been in Milwaukee for two seasons now, but as we discussed, she’s barely played. Still, she’d be familiar with what Theis is asking from his libero. If not Julian, then the job is going to have to go to one of Marquette’s two freshmen defensive specialists. Martha Konovodoff and Gabbi Martinez both have quality credentials in their prep and club careers, so they could be suited to the task. It’s going to come down to whichever woman Theis is most comfortable with, but I would also expect him to pick one of them and stick with her for the long haul.
4 - Can Marquette make it to a seventh consecutive NCAA tournament?
That’s the big one, of course. The volleyball team has the longest active NCAA tournament streak on campus right now (men’s lacrosse is the second longest at two, believe it or not), and there’d be nothing better than seeing that streak continue.
It’s not going to be easy, though. Marquette will play five of their 12 non-conference matches against teams ranked in the AVCA preseason top 25, including each of their first three. They also have a game against a Wichita State squad that picked up a few votes in the preseason poll, which means that the coaches have the Shockers a few notches ahead of Marquette to start the season. That means the Golden Eagles will not be favored to win in at least half of their non-conference matches, and that does not bode well for their postseason hopes.
Also not helping MU out is the fact that the Big East has a well earned reputation as a weak volleyball conference. Only four Big East teams won 20 or more matches last season, and only two of those teams lost fewer than 10 times. Not coincidentally, those two — Creighton and Marquette — were the only two teams to qualify for the NCAA tournament. Only 4 Big East teams finished the 2016 regular season in the top 100 of the RPI, and there’s a pretty big gap between Villanova at #72 and Butler at #121. Georgetown and Providence were down below #225, and while that doesn’t seem awful, remember that Marquette has to play them both twice.
Let’s be honest: Marquette was a little bit lucky to make it into the NCAA tournament last year with a record of 23-8 and an RPI of 43. The Golden Eagles are going to need to steal wins (yes, plural) in the non-conference portion of the schedule and avoid horrible losses against Big East foes. 10 losses by Selection Sunday is definitely a possibility with this schedule and this largely inexperienced roster. 10 losses is also probably going to keep them out of the dance. It’s a small margin for error.