Our 2019 fall sports previews continue onwards. Today, we start our look at the forthcoming season for Marquette women’s volleyball! SPOILER ALERT: 2019 is probably going to be pretty great for the Golden Eagles.
If you haven’t already heard, the Golden Eagles are the favorite to win the Big East this season. On top of that, they will start the year ranked #16 in the AVCA coaches poll.
But that’s the highlights. Let’s dive into more minute details, specifically who is returning from the 2018 roster and thus encouraging the voters to push the Golden Eagles to the top of the conference and national viewpoints. In a future article, we’ll talk about the newcomers on Ryan Theis’ roster, but for now, buckle up. As you might expect, there’s more than a few of them. That’s how you get ranked #16 in the country to start the season.
We’re starting with the hitters because when the Big East’s Preseason Player of the Year is on your team playing outside hitter, that’s where you start. Allie Barber led the Big East in points and kills per set last year, and in her free time, she was only the second most accurate attacker in the conference. Not bad at all. On top of that, Barber was the AVCA East Coast Region Player of the Year and a Second Team All-American. That made her a two-time All-American after earning Honorable Mention after her sophomore year.
The 6’5” Barber is a physically dominating presence at the net as well as a mentally dominating presence in the game. When she’s on the floor, Marquette’s primary concern is to send the ball in her direction, and more often than not, either because of her power or her aim, there’s very little you can do about it. Her attacks hit the floor nearly 36% of the time last season, more than anyone else in the Big East except for now-former teammate Jenna Rosenthal. No one else in the Big East hit better than .350 and only three women hit better than .330. It’s the volume that’s the problem for opposing defenses. Barber was the second most accurate attacker in the conference last season and did it while being just one of three women in the top 20 with more than 1,000 attacks, finishing with 1,156 swings. She’s the only one in the top 10 with more than 700 attacks. Amongst the top 10 in hitting percentage in the Big East in 2018, Barber had more kills (537) than four women in the top 10 had attacks.
We also have to mention that Barber will be taking a run at Theresa Coughlin’s program record for kills this season. While Marquette has been in the middle of the best run in program history lately, culminating in last year’s Sweet 16 appearance, no one has come close to challenging Coughlin’s record of 1,733 kills in her career. Ashley Beyer came the closest in the last seven seasons, putting up 1,214, and had she been at Marquette for all four seasons, maybe she would have gotten there. We also saw two lightning rod attackers — Autumn Bailey and Taylor Louis — transfer out of the program after their sophomore years, which led to this opening for Barber, who has already surpassed Beyer’s total. Barber needs just 504 more kills in order to pass Coughlin, and pretty much the only question at hand is whether or not Marquette will end up playing enough sets to get her there by the time the season comes to an end.
Barber isn’t alone out there, of course, both literally and in the award winning eyes of the Big East coaches. Junior Hope Werch earned a spot on the preseason all-conference team after running under the radar in 2018. The 2017 Big East Freshman of the Year didn’t rate in the top 25 in the conference last season in kills or the top 14 in blocks. However, thanks to leading the league in aces per set and all-around good play, Werch did rank 21st in the Big East in points per set at 3.00 even. She averaged 2.25 kills per set last season along with 2.16 digs per frame. With the losses of Anna Haak and Jenna Rosenthal from MU’s attack, Werch will have to step up her game in terms of hitting percentage this season. .202 was fine when she was 4th on the team in kills, but it’s not so great as the #2 returning attacker.
Joining Werch and Barber on the pins are Madeline Mosher and Ellie Koontz. Mosher is a senior this season, and she’s proved to be a valuable part of the lineup during her tenure with Marquette. However, she has seen her playing time go all over the place in the last two years after appearing in nearly every set as a freshman. Mosher averaged 1.30 kills last year while appearing in all but two of Marquette’s matches. It took Koontz a bit to get going as a freshman last year, appearing in just two of Marquette’s first 10 matches. She was more of a part of the regular rotation by the end of the year, appearing in 13 of MU’s 19 total matches against Big East foes, including each of the last five. The 6’1” Minnesotan averaged just under a kill per set and hit .286 in 2018. With Barber and Mosher in their senior seasons, Koontz will be asked to play a much bigger role in 2020 and beyond, so hopefully we’ll see some of that future here in the present day.
It would be wrong of us to organize this rundown in a way that held off Marquette’s third and final preseason all-Big East honoree any further, so we turn our attention to MU’s backline at this point. In just two seasons, Martha Konovodoff has quickly established herself as one of the best liberos in the Big East and one of the best in Marquette history, too. Through two seasons, Konovodoff has already moved herself within 15 digs of passing Martha Meyer for the 10th most in program history. She averaged a bit over four digs per set as a freshman, and even while appearing to not be as involved as in the past, Konovodoff averaged 4.87 digs per set last year. I say “appearing” because often times it was Werch or Haak making the dig and Konovodoff would be the one making the pass up to the hitters. Her precision on those passes was incredibly impressive, especially given the fact that she was doing it underhanded with closed fists instead of over her head with open hands as you traditionally see a setter doing it. Konovodoff ended up averaging 1.23 assists per set on top of finishing third in the Big East in digs per set.
Katie Schoessow and Gabbi Martinez will provide the extra defensive support for Marquette this season. Not only are they returning from last year and thus providing a veteran mindset, but they’re also the only two other defensive specialists on MU’s roster this year. It’s a little bit surprising to not have a freshman on the team, but if Konovodoff is going to occupy most of the positional playing time in Theis’ rotation, then there’s no reason to have someone on the roster for this season who won’t be playing at all.
As a freshman and a sophomore respectively last season, Schoessow and Martinez didn’t see all that much action. Schoessow only appeared in more than one set in a match one time before Big East play started, and that was in MU’s season opening win over Texas State. She finished up the year with 39 sets played out of the 102 that the Golden Eagles had altogether, although she did appear in 21 of 31 matches. Martinez played a much smaller role, appearing in 10 sets in 10 matches after just six sets as a freshman. If Theis maintains the two setter rotation that he changed to last year which relied on players like Werch and Haak to get digs, then it seems unlikely that we’ll see much more playing time for either Schoessow or Martinez in 2019.
Since we brought up the two setter rotation in the last section, it’s only fair that we move on to MU’s primary passers next. Last year, it was Lauren Speckman and Sarah Rose splitting time at setter. It was a bit of a surprise to see Theis switch to the system after several years of rolling with one primary setter taking up all the playing time, but it’s hard to argue with his results. Until we see different — or until the excellent results change, I suppose — I think it’s safe to assume that we’ll see Speckman and Rose splitting time again in 2019. Speckman carried the majority of the load last year, recording 6.91 assists to Rose’ 5.21 per frame.
It’s a little bit of a bummer to see Speckman splitting time, but only a little. She wrapped up last season having just passed Kristin Kemmeter for the 10th most assists in program history. I say only a little because due to starting her MU career during Sara Blasier’s senior season, Speckman never had a chance to break Liz Egasti’s program record. Thus, splitting time with Rose last year didn’t cost her a shot at the record anyway. However, presuming the time share returns for a second straight season, it does limit how high on the chart that Speckman can climb before she finishes up her collegiate career this season.
Rounding out the setter group is Claire Mosher, the younger sister of outside hitter Madeline Mosher. As a freshman last year on a team running a two setter rotation, Mosher didn’t have much to do on game days. She appeared just 14 times in a total of 22 sets. However, she was pressed into service early in the season, taking up Speckman’s role as the starting setter against Tulsa and Illinois State. The two squads were feisty, and MU had their fair share of struggles, but the Golden Eagles still came away with two straight sets wins with Mosher averaging 5.5 assists per set. That’s right in the wheelhouse of what you could expect from a freshman making spot starts and splitting time in mid-September, so she can clearly hold her own if Theis needs her again in 2019.
The Golden Eagles have two middle blockers returning from last season, but questions will abound in a big way no matter what. Jenna Rosenthal was a constant dominant presence at the net on both offense and defense for Marquette over the past four seasons, and Theis will have to figure out how to deploy his middles this season to recreate that kind of production somehow. I suspect the biggest solution is going to come from a newcomer, but that’s an issue to cover when we get there.
For now, we’re going to talk about Elizabeth Orf and Sandy Mohr. Orf is the more familiar name to the Marquette volleyball fan as she’s been a starting lineup fixture for the Golden Eagles ever since she stepped on campus two seasons ago. The 6’3” Saint Louis native is averaging 1.29 kills and 0.75 blocks in her career, which has been more than useful while playing with Rosenthal. It’s impossible for Orf to play more than she already has been playing in terms of pure court time, but with the departure of Rosenthal, perhaps the best Marquette volleyball player in program history, Orf may have to shoulder more production responsibility starting this year.
Mohr has a fascinating story about the path that she took to finally end up at Marquette after a year of NAIA volleyball, but that hasn’t turned itself into on court production. The 6’4” Mohr made 13 appearances in 2017, but did not play at all in 2018. She obviously wasn’t asked to do much when she was a sophomore, and as a result of not appearing last year, she’s a redshirt junior now. It’s possible that her lack of playing time a year ago was a strategic move on Theis’ part given the availability of Rosenthal and Orf in the middle. We’ll have to wait to see if she takes on an important role this season, and we know the space is in the rotation for her to grab.