Marquette volleyball enters the 2017 season in search of their seventh straight NCAA tournament appearance. In addition to that, Ryan Theis and his team are chasing after the women’s track and field team for the title of Best Team On Campus. While the streak of six straight tourneys is the best active stretch on campus, volleyball’s reign was damaged by the transfer of Taylor Louis to Iowa. Louis had led the Golden Eagles in attacks in each of her first two seasons on the active roster, but left to join Bond Shymansky and the Hawkeyes in the offseason. That left the door open for track & field to win the indoor and outdoor Big East titles for the second straight season and thus swipe the crown.
From a pure “what do they have to do?” perspective, it wouldn’t be hard for volleyball to bring the title back to their locker room. Win a Big East title, either regular season or tournament, or advance in the NCAA tournament. The problem there is that Theis has way too many questions to answer about his team in order for any of that to seem possible at this point in the season. Replacing Louis as the focal point of the offense is actually Marquette’s smallest problem. MU also needs a new setter and a new libero after Sara Blasier and Lauren Houg ended their eligibility last season. The Golden Eagles have the hitters to replace Louis, most notably Allie Barber, a preseason all-Big East honoree, so it’s just a matter of handing out the job. They don’t have a setter with any notable collegiate experience, and while Manon Geoffroy has the chops to play libero, putting her in the off-color jersey means someone has to replace Geoffroy has the primary defensive specialist in the rotation.
So yeah, there’s a lot going on, and that’s without getting into the part where Marquette has to play five non-conference matches against preseason ranked foes (including all three this weekend), a sixth against a team that got preseason top 25 votes, and oh yeah, that’s right, defending Big East champion Creighton starts the year ranked #9 in the country. Fingers crossed that Jenna Rosenthal, Marquette’s other Big East honoree, explodes for the best middle hitter season in the country? For what it’s worth, Rosenthal currently sits just 154 assisted blocks away from Meghan Niemann’s program record, and she tallied 133 and 128 in her first two seasons.
Match #1: at #20 Hawaii Rainbow Wahine (0-0)
Date: Friday, August 25, 2017
Time: 11:55pm Central (7pm local time, which is actually midnight Central, so let’s just say 11:55 so we’re all on the same page.)
Location: Stan Sheriff Center in Honolulu, HI
Live Stats: StatBroadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB
I guess the first fun thing about this horror movie of an opening weekend is that Marquette is playing three teams that they’ve never played in the past. A not-fun part about playing Hawaii to kick off the season is that the Rainbow Wahine return THREE all-Big West First Teamers from last season: setter Norene Iosia, libero Savanah Kahakai, and middle hitter Emily Maglio. That’s a pretty decent way to set yourself up coming off a 23-6 season that ended in a second round NCAA tournament loss.
While Hawaii will be the favorite to win their fifth Big West title in the last six seasons, they will have to do it without Nikki Taylor. The outside hitter won two Big West Player of the Year trophies and averaged over 4.5 kills per set last season. Replacing her will be a huge task for head coach Robyn Ah Mow-Santos, who also has the monumental task of replacing the now-retired Dave Shoji, who coached Hawaii for 42 years. Ah Mow-Santos is an incredibly decorated former Hawaii player, though, with two All-American selections and three Olympic Teams in her past. She has connections with this team, though, serving as an assistant under Shoji from 2011-15.
Match #2: vs #13 UCLA Bruins (0-0)
Coming off of a 27-7 season that ended in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, UCLA is picked to finish fifth in the Pac-12. How’s that for a kick in the pants? Heck, even the AVCA’s national poll voters disagree with the Pac-12’s own coaches about their league, marking the Bruins as the third best team in the preseason top 25 behind Stanford and Washington. The Pac-12 coaches have the Huskies as the favorite, with the Cardinal behind them. In between those two in the Pac-12 poll are Oregon and Utah, and the Utes even got a first place vote.
As things kind of go in these situations, the #13 team in the country has just one preseason all-conference honoree. Reily Buechler is an outside hitter from Del Mar, California, and led UCLA with 3.34 kills per set last year. She’s a full rotation player, racking up 21 aces in 2016 and averaging 2.37 digs, the third best mark on the team.
Marquette may have a chance to pull a stunner on the Bruins. Buechler is the only one of their top five attackers that returns this season, and they’re also replacing their top defensive player and their top setter. Obviously, when you have the #3 recruiting class in the country, these kinds of transitions are easier, but there’s going to be a lot of women playing in brand new roles and maybe the Golden Eagles can catch UCLA before they get things hammered out.
Match #3: vs #22 San Diego Toreros (0-0)
San Diego is probably a slight bit pissed off heading into 2017. The Toreros were 24-5 and ranked #14 in the country heading into the 2016 NCAA tournament. They got beat by Baylor in five sets in the first round, in what has to be considered an upset, because there’s no way that the NCAA paired up two top 15 teams in the first round.
That’s not a fun way to end your season, so you have to figure that USD will approach the 2017 campaign with their sights set on doing damage. Believe it or not, they’re not the favorite to win the West Coast Conference this season. They’re only second in the WCC preseason poll, trailing BYU, which starts the year ranked #10 in the AVCA top 25.
Setter Kristen Gengenbacher and middle blocker Kaity Edwards were named to the all-WCC preseason team. Gengenbacher has been the starting setter for the past two seasons and averaged 7.67 assists per set last season. Edwards is the leading returning attacker for USD, coming off a season where she averaged 2.20 kills per set while hitting .364. For someone listed as a middle blocker, she’s not particularly adept at racking up blocks, averaging just 0.62 per set last year.