It was kind of a weird weekend at the Al McGuire Center in the first opportunity for Marquette volleyball to play a real match in over 13 months. The #20 ranked Golden Eagles, working with a roster of seven returning players and eight newcomers, played gutsy volleyball to beat Illinois State in three sets (25-19, 25-23, 25-21) on Friday night, but looked disjointed and out of sorts on Saturday as the Redbirds handed MU the 3-2 (25-13, 21-25, 25-17, 16-25, 16-14) loss. Marquette is 1-1 in this timeshifted 2021 spring season, and you’d have to imagine that their AVCA top 25 ranking is in doubt come Monday.
Friday night’s win wasn’t easy, but that was expected. MU head coach Ryan Theis threw his somewhat hastily assembled roster straight into the fire this spring against an Illinois State team coming off an NCAA tournament appearance in 2019. That wasn’t just a lucky break for the Redbirds as they’ve been competitive in the Missouri Valley and have been to the tourney regularly recently. ISU brought back their top three hitters from that team, their setter, and their top two defensive specialists. In short, a quality opponent at worst, and Illinois State looked like it. Marquette had to rally from behind in the second and third set, scoring eight of the final 10 points in both frames to secure the victories.
It wasn’t a highly effective match to watch, with both teams hitting under .200, but Marquette looked like a top 25 team facing a good to very good opponent in their first match of the season. Not perfect, but you could see the upper end ceiling shining through, and the Golden Eagles were deserving victors at the end of the night.
Here’s some highlights of Match #1 vs Illinois State, courtesy of GoMarquette.com:
Saturday afternoon’s loss to Illinois State was a different story. Marquette looked like a team that was just barely getting to know each other as people much less teammates as they hit just .122 on the afternoon and failed to even break .100 in three of the five sets. ISU pounced on the Golden Eagles out of the gate, going up 15-6 in the first set and rolling to an easy win there. Theis was clearly confounded by how his team looked, literally displaying the “hey, what’s all this about” arms out to the side, palms facing up pose while talking during a timeout.
I don’t want to say that Marquette figured it out in the second set, because that one was tightly contested all the way through until the Golden Eagles got the last four points. Two of them came on back-to-back blocks by newcomers Savannah Rennie and Taylor Wolf, and a kill by KJ Lines closed it out. It was something of a surprise to see Lines on Saturday, as she did not play on Friday after going down with a knee injury to end her 2019 season prematurely. She would finish with four kills, three digs, and an assisted block on the day.
Set 3 was back to the mess, as Illinois State started out with a 5-0 lead, and then popped off another four straight to make it 9-3 three early. Marquette would get five straight of their own in the middle of the frame to pull within one at 15-14, but the Redbirds got five of the next six to reassert control and close it out from there.
Set 4 was the first time that Marquette looked like they were getting it together, although they had to flip the game from 10-7 Illinois State to 16-12 MU to make you think that. It was clear the thing was going to a fifth set when Rennie tacked on a kill after partnering with Wolf on a block to make it 19-13, and four straight by the Golden Eagles late was just icing on the cake.
The 16-14 ending to the fifth set is a disappointment on multiple levels. Marquette went on a 5-1 run helped by two attack errors by Illinois State to stake themselves to a 9-7 lead right about at the midway point of the first-to-15 closer. Two points isn’t an insurmountable lead, but when you’re six away from a win, it’s not nothing, either. ISU called timeout there and then took the next four points to flip the game around to 11-9. Much more danger here, but now it was aimed at the Golden Eagles. It got to 13-10 for the visitors before a service error, a challenged call by MU that officially went as an attack error, a block by Claire Nuessmeier, and another ISU attack error made it 14-13 for Marquette and handed the ball to Claire Mosher to serve for match point. Based on the totality of the circumstances, should Marquette have really found themselves serving to win in five? Maybe, maybe not. But they were, and that’s what matters.
Except it didn’t go their way. ISU’s leading attacker Kaylee Martin put two on the floor, and Hope Werch missed on an attack down the left sideline for the extra point and give ISU the two point victory in the decisive frame.
It stinks, but this is the kind of thing that can happen when you find yourself scheduling a team two days in a row because a pandemic makes it make sense to do that, I guess.
Here’s the highlights from the five set loss, again thanks to GoMarquette.com:
Taylor Wolf has already established herself as a force on the court for the Golden Eagles, posting back-to-back triple-doubles on kills, assists, and digs. The All-American transfer from Green Bay appears to be deployed as a hitter while Mosher is setting and then shifts to setter when Mosher rotates off the floor. It’s an interesting variation on the two-setter system that Theis used with Lauren Speckman and Sarah Rose for the 2018 and 2019 seasons.
While that’s similar to what the Golden Eagles have done in the past, there is a change in offensive tactics. Longtime followers of MU volleyball have watched Theis run his offense through one primary attacker, with Allie Barber being the most recent recipient of that plan over the past three seasons. It would appear that, at least for now, Theis is going to have his setters spread the ball around. On Friday, the top four attackers all had between 23 and 28 swings. Things got a little more tilted in one direction on Saturday, but not much. The top four were spread between 20 and 38 attacks, but the top three — Wolf, Werch, and Hannah Vanden Berg — were all between 31 and 38. Wolf getting 22% of the swings might seem like it’s still a lot, but Barber got 29.7% of them back in 2019. That’s a big difference, but we’ll have to wait and see if it holds up to consistent play. Will Theis keep this up, or will he eventually turn things over to one player once he gets everyone on the same page?
Up Next: Marquette won’t be back at the McGuire Center until late February, as they’ll spend the next two weekends playing road matches. They’ll be in Iowa next weekend, visiting Northern Iowa for a match on Saturday and staying in Cedar Falls to play Drake on Sunday. UNI says that Saturday’s match is set for a 7pm Central start, but we don’t have a first serve time for Sunday’s match against the Bulldogs. Northern Iowa lost 3-1 to Drake and Nebraska-Omaha in their first two matches of the season, and they’ll be visiting #15 Creighton on Sunday afternoon. Drake is 2-0 after beating the Panthers and Western Illinois as well, and they’ll host South Dakota State on Sunday for a third match on the year before visiting UNI on Friday on the way to Sunday’s encounter with Marquette. Confused yet?