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2021 Marquette Volleyball Spring Season Preview: The Returning Players

Well, we’re getting something resembling a season, so let’s see what head coach Ryan Theis has to work with from the last time we saw the Golden Eagles.

Hope Werch
Hope Werch’s dependability is going to be a big factor in Marquette’s spring season.
Facebook.com/MarquetteVolleyball

Well, it’s official, we’re getting some Marquette volleyball this spring.

We still don’t know what the Big East is doing for a conference schedule, or at least we don’t as I type this part of the article up on Saturday, January 16th. However, we do know that Marquette will be playing (at least?) eight non-conference matches, with the first of those coming up THIS FRIDAY at the McGuire Center.

Well, if the season is starting this week, then we’d better get our act in gear and do some season previewing.

Here you’ll find a discussion of the eight players on Ryan Theis’ roster that are returning from the last time that we saw Marquette volleyball in action in December of 2019. We’ll be back with another article about the eight new faces on the roster later in the week. As you might guess, the success of the Golden Eagles in this weird short spring season might just end up depending on how well the coaching staff integrates those new women with the returning players.

But that’s questions for down the road. Let’s jump in and jog some memories about who is back for the preseason #20 team in the country.

HITTERS

We’ll start here because it’s MU’s biggest position of strength amongst returning players. The Golden Eagles return either two or three starters, depending on how you want to look at it. When we last saw Marquette in action in the fall of 2019, KJ Lines started in 14 of Marquette’s 16 matches before a knee injury sidelined her for the rest of the year. From there on out, Hannah Vanden Berg was elevated to starter in Lines’ place. Both women performed well in their roles behind Allie Barber’s top spot amongst hitters. Lines averaged 2.57 kills per set and hit .243 before being lost for the year, and back-to-back 17 kill performances against BYU and Wisconsin were a big reason why the Golden Eagles picked up road wins against top 10 teams in back-to-back matches. Vanden Berg would play in all 34 contests with 21 starts, and ended up averaging 2.04 kills while hitting .253. That was as a freshman back in 2019, and remember: She was behind Lines in the rotation for the front half of the year. With Lines only playing 11 sets against Big East foes, Vanden Berg ended up averaging 2.38 kills and hitting .249 in conference action. Both women were able to contribute their own part on defense, averaging north of 1.5 digs per set. Marquette will get a chance to use both of them at the same time now, as the Golden Eagles have to fill Barber’s spot in the lineup.

We have, of course, skipped past Hope Werch in the discussion line here, as Werch’s contributions are already more notable than both Lines and HVB. That has more to do with Werch playing her third season with the Golden Eagles last year while Lines (transfer) and Vanden Berg (freshman) were making their debuts. The senior from Neenah has been a reliable core component for Marquette from the get go. Werch averaged a career high 2.82 kills per set last season and a career best .299 hitting percentage, too. Combine that with 2.70 digs per set, and she earned all-Big East honors for the first time in her career in 2019 after being named Freshman of the Year in 2017. I would wager to guess that Werch will maintain her role as Swiss Army Knife on the floor for Ryan Theis instead of being elevated to primary attacker. Werch’s reliability in multiple phases of the game is probably too important to MU’s overall play to try to focus her down one particular path.

That leaves Ellie Koontz as the only returning hitter we haven’t talked about. She played in 33 of 34 matches in 2019, averaging 1.56 kills per set and hitting .261. Koontz wasn’t asked to do more than be a dependable piece that could pop off the bench and give Marquette some swings at the net here and there, and she did that just fine. We’re going to have to wait to see what the newcomers bring to the table, but Koontz might be needed to provide more pop this spring.

MIDDLE BLOCKERS

We’ve got a big name and a not so big name to talk about here. Elizabeth Orf is the name you recognize, as she’s been an every match starter for Marquette from the moment she stepped onto campus. She’s a traditional middle, only averaging 1.18 kills per set in her career and actually had a career low 0.98 in 2019. She hits with enough accuracy to make using her on offense make sense, but MU has not relied on her. For Orf’s first two seasons, she was trailing behind noted cheat code Jenna Rosenthal in terms of living up to her positional title and averaged between 0.70 and 0.80 blocks per set. As a junior..... she was right there again at 0.74/set, but this time Orf led the team in that category. She’s been a good middle blocker, and has definitely been holding up her end of the deal as Marquette has been on the longest and best run in program history. There’s no reason to expect that to change.

UPDATE [1/23/21]: ACTUALLY THERE IS ONE REASON.

Elizabeth Orf grad transferred to Memphis back in December. Thanks for announcing that, Marquette.

Marquette’s other returning middle blocker has a big opportunity in front of her, but we’ll have to wait to see if it’s her turn in the chute. As a freshman last season, Claire Nuessmeier played just in just seven sets across five matches for Marquette. She recorded three kills, a dig, and two assisted blocks. The St. Peter, Minnesota native was playing behind both Orf and senior transfer Gwyn Jones, so it was obvious from the get go that playing time was going to be scarce for her. The combination of Jones finishing her eligibility, Marquette using a starting lineup that involves two middles, and no other returning middles on the roster opens up a pathway for a big role for Nuessmeier. Unfortunately, for the second year in a row, a transfer for a final year of eligibility may be in her way. Savannah Rennie went through a liver transplant, post-transplant lymphoma, AND a torn ACL during her time at Cal. She’s at Marquette for one final year of eligibility as well as grad school. If she’s healthy from that torn ACL a year ago — and she’s had more time than normal to rehab — then you can see how Ryan Theis and his staff would lean towards giving Rennie the spot held down by Jones a year ago. That would relegate Nuessmeier to a bench spot for a second straight season, but again: It’s all dependent on Rennie’s health.

SETTER

Marquette has gone from three returning setters going into the 2019 fall campaign to just one in the spring of 2020. Part of that was known ahead of time, as Lauren Speckman was a senior in 2019. Part of that was not, as Sarah Rose was diagnosed with Ewing’s Sarcoma this fall, and while she’s still on the Marquette roster for her senior year, she will not be playing as she goes through treatment for that, and we wish her nothing but the best.

In terms of on the court availability, Claire Mosher is now Marquette’s only experienced setter.... and that’s not particularly fantastic news for Ryan Theis. Mosher has appeared in just 31 matches in her first two seasons on campus, averaging just 3.58 assists per set. That’s a little misleading, as most of her appearances were relatively short. She was asked to step in for Lauren Speckman in MU’s two-setter rotation in the middle of the 2019 season, and was perfectly fine paired up with Rose. Mosher finished the year averaging 4.78 assists per set, and that bumped up to 5.73 in 10 conference matches. The big question for Mosher is whether or not Marquette is going to stick with the two setter system. That seemed to be a move that Theis made surrounding how he was using Allie Barber, so without MU’s all-time leader in kills on this year’s team, it’s hard to say what Theis and his staff will want to do going forward. If it’s back to one primary setter, then Mosher has the inside track to grab that spot because she’s the one who already has rapport with the returning hitters. If it’s still the two-setter system, then Mosher will be splitting time with someone. Transfer Caroline Dragani is the most likely option, but there’s also spring semester freshman enrollee Ella Foti to consider for playing time.

DEFENSIVE SPECIALIST/LIBERO

Much like the setter department, we have just one name to discuss here. Katie Schoessow is Marquette’s lone returning defensive specialist. Part of the issue here is that Martha Konovodoff was on track to graduate at the end of the fall semester and did exactly that, while Gabbi Martinez opted to/needed to take advantage of a professional opportunity in MU’s physical therapy program in the spring semester. As such, both women lost their senior season of competition to the pandemic, leaving the junior from Mukwonago as the only DS on the roster with experience in blue and gold.

With that said, it’s not a lot of experience in her two seasons. With the way Ryan Theis has run things for Marquette, it’s mostly been only Konovodoff on the floor as libero with very little usage of anyone else as a specialist. Schoessow has appeared in 57 career matches, including 32 of 34 in 2019. That sounds like regular playing time, but she only got into 96 of 144 sets. Her limited time action meant that she has recorded just 84 career digs for a per set average of just 0.58.

There’s an argument to be made for Schoessow to pull on the libero jersey for the 2021 spring season since she’s the one used to playing for Ryan Theis. Carly Skrabak transferred in to Marquette for spring semester a year ago, so she’s kiiiind of had a chance to acclimate to Ryan Theis’ system, and Megan Lund has joined the team for this coming semester. Neither one is a particularly fantastic option in terms of continuity in the program, but I can’t help but wonder if Theis would prefer to turn the keys over to Skrabak. The transfer from Tennessee Tech is a sophomore right now, and thus won’t be finished with her eligibility by the time the calendar turns to 2022 the way Schoessow will. It’s up to Theis to figure it out, but I can see it going either way. Schoessow has shown the ability to hold up her end of the deal in her limited playing time, so I would figure that she would be able to go to full time libero duties with very little drop off.