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 new to the squad since the last time that we saw Marquette volleyball in action in December of 2019. We’ve already run through the returning faces, and you can go read about them over this way. 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 because that’s the kind of thing that happens when half your roster has never played with the other half.
But that’s questions for down the road. Let’s jump in and learn about who is new to the team for the preseason #20 squad in the country. I’m going to organize this in terms of what positions I think have the biggest potential impact on the Golden Eagles this season. As such, we start with......
Yes, yes, haw haw, the attackers have the biggest impact on the game. No, that’s not the point I’m going for here. The fact of the matter is that when you add an All-American to your roster, it’s a pretty notable situation. That’s what Marquette has in Taylor Wolf. The 6’2” Minnesota native comes to Marquette after three years at Green Bay, where all she did was earn Freshman of the Year honors in 2017 followed by back-to-back Horizon League Player of the Year honors in 2018 and 2019. Wolf tacked on AVCA All-American Honorable Mention status in 2019 for good measure. She’s obviously not as physically imposing as Allie Barber was, but Wolf averaged 4.54 kills per set in 2019 and hit .285 while taking 29% of Green Bay’s swings. She’s pretty good on serves, notching 30 aces in 30 matches in her junior campaign, and she can move around the court well, getting 3.04 digs per set and 0.67 blocks per set, too. The combination of Wolf with Hope Werch, KJ Lines, and Hannah Vanden Berg gives Marquette a very diverse set of experienced collegiate hitters, so it will be interesting to see how head coach Ryan Theis makes use of all of his weapons.
Oh, and Wolf isn’t the only new hitter on the squad. 5’11” Breyan Ashley joins MU for this season after two years at Saint Mary’s in California. The San Francisco native led the Gaels in kills in 2019 with 2.94 per set while hitting just .170. SMC spread their swings around in their attacking group, but Ashley still led the team in attacks with 936. She added 32 aces in 28 appearances in her sophomore season, plus she chipped in 2.28 digs per set. At 5’11”, there’s obviously questions about her ability to contribute on defense at the net, but we’ll have to see how accurate that is. SMC was a pretty good blocking team in 2019 with two women averaging more than a block per set, so it’s not surprising that Ashley only averaged 0.39 blocks per set. MU has a pretty strong set of attackers on the roster, and three of them — Werch, Lines, and Wolf — are seniors. This might lead to not as many chances for Ashley to crack into the regular lineup, but MU is also undergoing an awful lot of changes in roster composition since the last time we saw them in action. We’ll have to wait and see what the coaching staff draws up.
The aforementioned Taylor Wolf is one of two transfers to join the roster since the fall semester ended. The other transfer is setter Caroline Dragani, a Milwaukee area native who spent her first season of college volleyball at Portland State. She averaged 7.91 assists per set while starting in 24 of 28 appearances for the Vikings.
Dragani is one of two new setters on the team right now. Freshman Ella Foti is the other, and I think we have legitimate questions about whether or not she’s going to play this spring. The 6-foot tall Wisconsin native was announced as a Marquette volleyball signed recruit on November 12, 2020. Yes, approximately two months ago. And now she’s enrolled for the spring semester and has been on campus since January 4th. Can we realistically expect someone to go from “was in high school five minutes ago” to “setting against a 2019 NCAA tournament team” by this coming weekend? Probably not, but who can say? As a collegiate athlete in the 2020-21 school year, Foti is going to get an extra year of eligibility, so it’s not like she’s even burning a redshirt year doing this.
Still, none of this helps us figure out what Ryan Theis is going to do with his setters this season. For the past two years, he has gone with a two-setter system, alternating Lauren Speckman and Sarah Rose as the starting pair. The system was largely deployed around Allie Barber, though, and getting her rest while perhaps allowing Barber to avoid having to serve or play on the back line too much. With Barber gone to graduation, we will have to wait to see how Theis and his staff reconstitute the offense. It’s possible that we could see a return to one primary setter, or we could see a continuation of the split shift.
If it’s time to shift to one setter, then Dragani and Foti will compete with returning setter Claire Mosher for that spot. If it’s the rotational system again, then all three women are competing to see who gets the two spots. As I just outlined, the likely path there is Dragani being paired with Mosher, but Theis brought Foti in for a reason. Whether that reason is just depth or not remains to be seen. Foti is a great athlete, earning all-state honors in both basketball and volleyball, including First Team all-state in volleyball as a junior. She was an Under Armour All-American honorable mention, so she can clearly play. It remains to be seen if she can jump straight into the deep end of top 25 collegiate volleyball.
No matter what, having Dragani and Foti around with Mosher is better than where MU was before they made the move to Marquette. At that point it was looking like Mosher and maybe Taylor Wolf subbing in here and there. Having three true setters along with a hitter/setter combo like Wolf is a much better roster situation for the Golden Eagles.
Carly Skrabak will be a new face on the floor for Marquette the next time that we see the Golden Eagles in action, but she won’t be that new to the team. MU announced that Skrabak was transferring in back in mid-January 2020, and so she was on campus up through the middle of March going through the spring training sessions with the team up until things were closed down at spring break.
The 5’6” native of Franklin, Tennessee spent her first season of college volleyball and first semester of college at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, a wee bit east of Nashville and Skrabak’s hometown. She averaged 4.28 digs/set for the — no, this isn’t a joke — Golden Eagles in the Ohio Valley Conference as the team went 13-17 with a 9-7 league record.
Skrabak’s addition in January is ultimately more important than the coaching staff could have realized a year ago. The fall season getting punted to a spring season forced both Martha Konovodoff and Gabbi Martinez off the MU roster due to December graduation and a spring physical therapy academic opportunity respectively. That leaves Katie Schoessow as the only returning defensive specialist on the roster. That’s a big problem for Marquette, as head coach Ryan Theis even said back in late November that he likes to have four libero-type players on his roster.
Y’all are smart people and can do math: Schoessow + Skrabak = 2. That’s not four like Theis would prefer, which does explain the mysterious sudden addition of Megan Lund to the roster. She’s listed as a 5’11” defensive specialist, and she hails from Pasadena, California. Lund is listed as a sophomore, so I thought perhaps she was a transfer that Marquette hadn’t quite gotten around to announcing yet. I don’t think that’s the case. A Google Search for “Megan Lund Marquette” turned up this article from the Marquette Wire back in mid-September when the university announced a COVID-19 quarantine lockdown of Schroeder Hall. Lund isn’t quoted, but she is mentioned as knocking a volleyball back and forth outside the building. Could this be another Megan Lund? Sure, but this definitely looks like Lund was already attending Marquette and is now a walk-on for the volleyball team because Ryan Theis needed more defensive specialists.
I’m not expecting Lund to take the libero role vacated by Konovodoff’s graduation, nor am I expecting her to play a big role on the team. While Theis says he likes to have four DS’s on the roster, he doesn’t exactly have a history of using all of them with a heavy regularity. Then again, Marquette needs someone to play libero with Konovodoff gone, and hey: If the best option is Lund, then so be it.
It’s probably going to be Schoessow or Skrabak, though, but we’ll have to wait to see what direction the Golden Eagles go in. Theis gave the spot to Konovodoff as a freshman, so there’s a possibility that he’ll prefer to give it to Skrabak, who has three seasons of eligibility remaining. Schoessow is already a junior and will be a senior for the theoretical regularly scheduled fall 2021 season. With that said, Schoessow is the player who is more experienced in terms of playing for Theis, and maybe that matters with all of the new faces on the roster.
This section has to go last because it’s the position group with the biggest question marks for this season. There are two women joining the team as middles, and it’s reasonable to ask how much either one of them will be able to contribute.
Let’s start with Savannah Rennie, because we’re going in descending order of potential impact anyway. Rennie is on, believe it or not, her sixth season of collegiate volleyball. She had to sit out her first season at Cal after being diagnosed with Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis with Portal Hypertension, got a liver transplant as a result in May, and then played 12 matches that fall for the Golden Bears. Then she missed the 2017 season because Rennie ended up with post-transplant lymphoma.... but was a full participant in spring 2018 workouts and then played in 27 matches in fall 2018. The universe wasn’t done with Rennie yet though, as she blew out her ACL during the 2019 season...... but she kept playing on it anyway. She appeared in 23 matches in the season as the team went 20-10, averaging 1.42 kills while hitting .339, as well as 0.58 blocks per set. Her knee appears to have dragged that average down, as Rennie only averaged 0.32 blocks/set in 47 Pac-12 play frames.
And so she’s here now, and clearly motivated to get one last season of activity in. Rennie is, or at least as of late November was, 100% clear to practice and play, so we’ll see how she mixes in. Marquette only has two returning middles from the 2019 season, and only one — Elizabeth Orf — had a notable impact on the season. Gwyn Jones started along side Orf as a middle in Theis’ rotation, so there’s clearly a spot for a talented and capable middle blocker to grab and occupy.
I don’t know if Carsen Murray will have much in the way of ability to get on the court for Marquette. It may come down to Rennie’s health as well as Claire Nussmeier’s development. Murray is the only freshman on the roster this season, so if Marquette is aimed at staying nationally relevant to whatever extent that means this season, then that may limit Murray’s chances. The other part of hesitancy for this season is the fact that Murray is a late comer to high level/collegiate recruiting type volleyball. She’s more raw talent than anything else right now, and sitting this spring mostly out — especially after the NCAA awarded everyone an extra season of eligibility anyway — might not be the worst thing for her just to get used to live action at this level. It sounds like she’s surprising the coaches with big jumps forward, so if the 6’4” Missouri native can contribute — she was a top 100 prospect coming out of high school, after all — then there’s no reason not to let her go wild.