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RV Marquette Volleyball Preview: at Xavier & at Butler

Time for the last two road matches of the regular season.

Big East Basketball Tournament - First Round Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

We’re going to talk an awful lot about what’s on the line for Marquette volleyball next weekend, so I don’t want to spend a lot of time here doing that. SHORT VERSION: The Big East says Marquette has clinched a conference tournament berth, although I’m not 100% sure the math works out there. In any case, MU can definitely do that with just one win this weekend.

Instead of going on about the Big East standings and the NCAA tournament and the RPI, I want to take some space and do something that I keep saying we don’t do enough of when it comes to talking about Marquette athletics, and that’s praise the absolute hell out of Hope Werch and Savannah Rennie.

Werch recently etched herself permanently into Marquette history when she broke the program’s all-time record for career service aces. That’s just putting an exclamation point on what has already been a ridiculously stellar career for the Neenah native. She was Big East Freshman of the Year in 2017 as she stepped right onto a team that was already chugging along in the national conversation and held up her end of the deal. In 2019, she earned her first All-Big East honor, a year after being named to the league’s all-championship team. Werch repeated both honors in the 2021 spring campaign, and it’s a pretty safe bet that she’ll do that again in a couple of weeks.

The most impressive thing about Werch is that she’s clearly a driving force behind Marquette’s success over the past four and a half school years, but she does it by doing a little bit of everything for the Golden Eagles. She’s just outside the top 10 in all-time hitting percentage, but doesn’t have one of the 15 best single seasons. Werch has just now climbed into the top 10 in kills for a career, but she probably won’t challenge for the top five and never had a top 15 single season. She’s not amongst MU’s leader in attacks for a career or a season, and the same goes for digs as well.

But it’s because she gives Marquette a little bit of all of it that makes her so great. We talked a little while back about whether or not MU should retire a volleyball number and who it should be. There are some real candidates from the past decade of Golden Eagles volleyball, and if someone starts looking around 10 years from now, they might overlook Werch because she’s not going to have gaudy numbers to back it up. Make no mistake: Marquette doesn’t make the NCAA tournaments in 2017, 2018, 2019, and (presumably) 2021 without her.

Savannah Rennie is a different story as she’s only been a Golden Eagle for 39 total matches. She grad transferred from Cal to play for MU in the spring and then, much like Hope Werch, elected to come back for one final go-round thanks to the NCAA’s COVID relief waivers for an extra year of eligibility. It makes sense for Werch to come back for one extra semester and one extra season, especially after MU missed the NCAA tournament in the spring mostly due to the reduced field. Rennie, though..... it barely makes sense for Rennie to be playing at Marquette much less continuing to play now.

Let’s be clear: Every swing Savannah Rennie connects for a kill or every stuff she connects for a block is starting to border on a modern medical miracle. Facts are facts: The 6’2” California native was diagnosed with Congenital Hepatic Fibrosis with Portal Hypertension before her freshman season at Cal in 2015, THEN got a liver transplant in May, THEN played in 12 matches with five starts for the Bears that fall, THEN was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Post-Transplant Lymphoma and missed the 2017 season, THEN played in 27 sets for Cal in 2018, THEN played in 23 matches in the 2019 campaign, most of which came AFTER tearing her ACL.

The fact that she ever pulled on a Marquette uniform is just proof that she’s a badass beyond belief. Bow down at that kind of mental toughness, there’s nothing else to be said.

What did she do while at Marquette? Oh, no big deal, she was only one of the best players in the entire conference in the spring, earning all-Big East and all-tournament honors while playing in all of MU’s 51 sets. This fall she’s playing with a ferocity that I haven’t seen from a Marquette player of any sport in quite a while, ranking third on the team in kills per set and ranking second in hitting percentage behind fellow middle Carsen Murray. Rennie is a terror to opposing teams going the other way as well, leading MU and ranking fifth in the Big East in blocks per set at 1.17 and racking up 16 solo blocks this year. If you completely ignored her Cal career, you’d watch Savannah Rennie play and say “wow, she’s having a great season.” Factor it in, and it’s one of the absolute best things I’ve ever seen a Marquette athlete do.

There, I’ve backed up my complaint that we don’t talk about them enough. Let’s do a preview.

Big East Match #15: at Xavier Musketeers (11-14, 6-8 Big East)

Date: Saturday, November 13, 2021
Time: 3pm Central
Location: Cintas Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
Streaming: FloSports
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 16-9 all time against Xavier. However, the two sides split four matches down the middle before MU moved into Division 1, and the series is 11-4 in favor of the Golden Eagles since Xavier joined the Big East in 2013. Xavier has not won a match since the Big East semifinals in 2016, and Marquette has won all but two sets since then.

This weekend is the “lone meeting weekend” as the Big East opted to go with an 18 game schedule for volleyball. As such, Marquette is only playing Xavier and Butler once this season, and this is that weekend.

For the most part, Xavier has been playing this season straight down the middle, or rather a little bit left of down the middle. They went 5-5 in non-conference action with their most interesting match coming as a 3-0 defeat to Louisville, the team that is now #1 in the country. They started out Big East play well, going 4-1 with the only loss coming against Creighton, and that’s not a big deal. They then lost eight of their next nine matches, including a mid-week jaunt up the road to play Dayton. That’s not great. One of the losses was their second go-round with the Bluejays, but Xavier comes in fresh off a 3-1 victory over Providence that snapped a six match Big East losing streak.

If I had to guess, and I’m going to because I’m not going to dive as deep into this as I would need to figure this out, part of Xavier’s problem this season is that they have one player averaging more than a kill per set that has played in every single set. That’s Carrigan O’Reilly, and she’s Xavier’s setter, which is probably also part of the problem. She’s averaging 1.54 kills per set alongside 9.05 assists.

Delaney Hogan qualifies as Xavier’s most reliable attacker at 2.43 kills/set and a hitting percentage of .296. She has played in every match this season, but she missed six sets somewhere along the way. Moriah Hopkins (1.97 kills/set, .193) and Ellie Chaffee (1.45 kills/set, .280) have also only played in 88 of the 94 sets while appearing in all 25 matches.

Xavier’s backline is much more reliable, as Stevie Wolf (3.34 digs/set) and Alyssa Overbeck (3.20 digs/set) are the top two receivers on the team and they have played in every single set along side O’Reilly this season. Hogan and Chaffee has provided the Musketeers with a reliable blocking pair at the net, with both women averaging over 0.80 blocks per set.

This will be a very important match for Xavier as they’re still alive for the conference tournament. They’re currently in a tie for sixth place in the league, but they’re only two games back of Butler and DePaul, the two teams tied for fourth. As luck would have it, Xavier is playing DePaul in their other match of the weekend, so there’s a whole bunch of opportunity all around for them.

Big East Match #16: at Butler Bulldogs (14-13, 8-6 Big East)

Date: Sunday, November 14, 2021
Time: 1pm Central
Location: Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
Streaming: FloSports
Live Stats: Stat Broadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 16-9 all time against Butler. The series started with six straight Butler wins and MU was 1-6 all time against the Bulldogs when Butler joined the Big East. It’s been 15-3 since then. The most recent BU victory was in the 2021 spring season when the Bulldogs took a five set victory in Indianapolis before the Golden Eagles swept them the very next day. It is very safe to argue that losing to Butler cost Marquette a spot in the NCAA tournament.

I’m glad to see that Butler isn’t the absolute mess that they were last season. They went 4-10 overall and 3-10 against Division 1 opponents, and that included a 1-7 mark against Big East opponents. Yes, Butler’s lone win was the one that probably kept the Golden Eagles out of the NCAA tourney. That stinks. Not so much for Butler, of course, but going 0-4 against the non-Creighton/Marquette end of the spring’s Midwest Division wasn’t good, either.

They’re not an outstanding team this fall, but they’re clearly better than they were in the spring. In fact, the Bulldogs are actually on a hot streak with wins in five of their last seven matches, and the losses were to two of the three teams not named Marquette in the top three spots in the Big East. Sure, that technically means Butler’s coming in with losses in two of their last three, but that’s less fun than pointing out that they’ve been stacking wins against the rest of the league.

Butler has quite a bit on the line this weekend as they’re currently tied for fourth place in the Big East. Only the top four teams in the league qualify for the conference tournament, so you can see the importance of this match, but their contest on Friday is actually more important. They’re hosting DePaul, who happens to be the team that they’re tied with in the standings. Much like Marquette, this will be Butler’s only meeting with DePaul this season, so the winner on Friday gets the head-to-head tiebreaker as well as fourth place to themselves for the time being.

Marquette’s .... well, everything will be focused on Melody Davidson. The 6’2” redshirt senior middle blocker is BU’s leader in both swings (coming up on 100 more than anyone else on the team) and kills (3.36/set) and hitting percentage (.329) AND blocks (1.19/set). Mariah Grunze, Brittany Robinson and Amina Shackelford are pretty good secondary attackers in terms of kills per set since they’re north of two kills per set. However, both Grunze and Robinson are hitting below .160 on the year. If Marquette can divert swings from Davidson to either one of them, things will probably go MU’s way. Going the other way, Davidson is averaging 0.70 solo blocks per match this season, so she’s a dangerous road block by herself or partnered up with her teammates.