We knew there were going to be bumps in the road for Marquette women’s volleyball as the season got going. Head coach Ryan Theis did not shy away from challenging his squad with the non-conference schedule, and that was the right decision given that the NCAA tournament will have fewer than normal at-large bids this season. Marquette has to prove that they belong in the field, and that means playing good competition outside the Big East, even while Theis assembles his rotations on the fly to a certain degree. There are seven returning players on this roster and eight newcomers. Marquette’s starting lineup — seven women if you count the libero — in their opening two matches of the season featured five women who had never started a match for Marquette before last Friday night. Three of them had never played for Marquette before.
There were going to be hiccups, so losing to Illinois State, a team with an eye on winning the Missouri Valley this spring after making the NCAA tournament last season, wasn’t surprising.
The surprise was losing in five sets on Saturday after looking like a relatively coherent team against the same ISU team in a three set sweep less than 24 hours earlier. Flip the two results around, and you come away from it thinking “aha, Ryan Theis ironed out some problems after Match #1.” Instead, we’re left thinking that there are still problems to be ironed out, and that’s never a great feeling.
This weekend, Marquette steps away from the comfort of playing on the floor that they practice on as they head out on the road for two matches. As we’ll get into in a second, these two matches look a bit different than they might have looked to the MU coaching staff when they were lining up the schedule. If it leads to Marquette getting a little extra tested, that’s probably not a bad thing, especially not with a trip to Omaha to see #14 Creighton for the very creative non-conference matches next weekend. It’s a 16 match sprint to the Big East tournament and hopefully the NCAA tournament after that. Marquette is already one-eighth of the way through their season. Just keep getting better every time out, and it will all work itself out by the time April gets here.
Match #3: At Northern Iowa (0-3, 0-1 Missouri Valley)
Marquette is 4-3 all time against Northern Iowa, with a 3-2 mark since the Golden Eagles moved to Division 1 competition in 1986. MU has won each of the last three contests against the Panthers including each of the past two seasons and in the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament.
So, yeah, this season isn’t starting the way Northern Iowa wanted it to start. Coming off their fifth straight NCAA tournament appearance and after being picked to win the Missouri Valley this season, the Panthers are 0-3 on the year after losses on the road against Drake, Nebraska-Omaha, and #15 Creighton. The Creighton one can get chalked up to the cost of doing business, but the Drake one is the real problem. That’s a Missouri Valley game, and the Bulldogs were picked to finish ninth in the league this year. If you’re the preseason favorite, you probably shouldn’t be losing to the team expected to be second to last.
I suppose there are questions to be asked about whether UNI should have been the preseason favorite after losing MVC Player of the Year Karlie Taylor and MVC Setter of the Year Rachel Koop. The Valley is a competitive volleyball conference, and losing arguably your two best players is a bit of a ding to take.
UNI’s lone preseason all-conference honoree is off to a not great start to the year as well. Kaylissa Arndorfer is a 6’1” outside hitter/middle blocker, and she is hitting just .156 to start the season. Three matches is a pretty solid set of data, so it’s not just one bad match dragging her down at this point. Arndorfer is averaging 2.09 kills per set and less than half a block per set. If her block numbers were way up, you could at least try to say that the Panthers aren’t running the offense through her as a middle, but that’s not the case. Or, rather, at least it’s not working out that way.
Sophomore Emily Holterhaus is leading the team in attacks right now, and she’s putting down just over three kills per set. She’s only hitting .109 on 128 swings, so it’s clear that Northern Iowa has a lot of things to still figure out.
Tayler Alden is averaging 7.27 assists per set, and it seems like she’s the one doing the setting full time. Her numbers are probably looking a little low due to the team hitting just .113 through 11 sets. Defense seems to be a little bit by committee, as Baylee Petersen averages 3.36 digs/set and Holterhaus is second on the team at 3.00. A heads up for attentive Marquette fans: Sarah Konovodoff is a freshman at UNI, and she has played in all 11 sets and averages 2.00 digs per set. I’m going to go ahead and guess that Rosary High School doesn’t have that many Konovodoffs attending and thus, former MU libero Martha Konovodoff is one of Sarah’s six siblings.
Match #4: vs Drake (3-0, 1-0 Missouri Valley)
Date: Sunday, January 31, 2021
Time: 5pm Central
Location: McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Streaming: ESPN+, which is very nice of UNI
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats, also very nice of UNI
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB
Marquette is 4-2 all time against Drake, and MU has won each of the past three meetings. However, the most recent one was all the way back in 2004, and even that one was the first one since 1992.
Obviously things are going better for Drake in 2021 than things are with UNI. They have a head to head win over the Panthers! That’s a whole thing by itself for the reasons we talked about in the Northern Iowa section above. The only difference is that Northern Iowa did challenge themselves with that Creighton match while I’m not quite sure that Western Illinois (6-23 last season) and South Dakota State (6-22 in 2019) are exactly big challenges. Still, wins are wins, and UNI doesn’t have any of those yet. We should point out that Drake will face Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls on Friday night, and this is being written before that match takes place. Maybe the Bulldogs come into Sunday with a loss... or maybe they are 4-0?
Emily Plock is the name to know when you watch Drake. The 6’2” senior is leading the Bulldogs with four kills per set so far this season, and her .269 hitting percentage is pretty respectable. She’s coming off a 2019 campaign where she set the Drake single season record for kills and already this season she has become the 10th Drake player to ever record 1,000 kills in a career. Jada Wills is no joke as a secondary option for the Bulldogs, trailing just 16 attacks behind Plock and averaging 3.09 kills per set.
Caitlyn Smith is the setter for the Bulldogs and thanks to the work from Plock and Wills, the junior from Marion, Iowa, is averaging just short of 10 assists per set. Weirdly, Smith is also #1 on the team in digs with 4.36 per set. That doesn’t seem to be a long term good thing for Drake, since getting the first touch precludes her from getting the second touch for the assist. Kylee Macke is right behind her at 4.09/set, so maybe this will normalize as Drake keeps playing more volleyball. Marquette is going to have to gameplan around Gillian Gergen, a 6’0” middle from Janesville, Iowa. The senior has gotten off to a hot start at the net, averaging 1.40 blocks per set. She’s never averaged more than 0.98/set in previous seasons and that was back in her freshman season. Is that just a hot streak to start the year, or is Gergen doing something that’s going to make her a force to contend with all season long? Marquette will definitely want to make it look like it’s the former instead of the latter.