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#12 Marquette Volleyball Preview: The Flyer Invitational

The Golden Eagles get their season started in Ohio with a three-pack of matches hosted by Dayton.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 18 Boca Raton Bowl - Western Kentucky v Appalachian State
Shouts to Big Red.
Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

And so begins the most highly anticipated season in Marquette volleyball history.

Marquette starts the year at #12 in the AVCA preseason top 25 poll. It is just the third time in program history that the Golden Eagles have been in the preseason top 25, and it is the best preseason ranking in program history, surpassing the #16 that came along with the 2019 preseason poll.

Marquette is coming off of their second straight Big East regular season championship. Last year was just the third time in program history that Marquette has ever won a regular season conference championship and the first time that they had ever won a second straight title. They are the favorite to win the Big East this fall in the eyes of a majority of the coaches in the league, and that would, of course, mark the first time that MU has ever won three straight regular season titles.

The Golden Eagles are also coming off the program’s second ever Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA tournament. The first time around, back in 2018, they were swept by Illinois in that round, but last fall, they took a set from eventual national champion and 2023 preseason #1 Texas.

Marquette returns six of their seven starters, with libero Carly Skrabak as the only rotation departure from last year’s roster. As long as head coach Ryan Theis and his staff have figured out how to replace Skrabak on the court and perhaps find an extra bit of efficiency from the returning stars, the sky’s the limit for Marquette this season.

Here, let’s let Theis explain how he and his staff are approaching this season with the team:

“Our goals don’t change that much. Our goal is to compete for a Big East championship and can we be the best Marquette team ever.”

Think about that. The goal, the desired outcome, for the program that is entrenched as the Best Team On Campus right now, is to be the best version of the Best Team On Campus that the program has ever seen.

That’s wild to think about.... but it’s also exactly what you want to hear from the head coach that’s in the position that Theis has worked to put himself at this point in the development of his outfit.

It’s not going to be easy this season. It’s a loaded non-conference schedule, and that starts right out of the gate with......

Match #1: vs #24 Western Kentucky Hilltoppers (0-0)

Date: Friday, August 25, 2023
Time: 10am Central
Location: Frericks Center, Dayton, Ohio
Streaming: Maybe?
Live Stats: Maybe?
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 2-1 all time against Western Kentucky. The loss came back in 2004, while the first win is quite notable in MU volleyball history. That was Marquette’s first ever match as an NCAA tournament team back in 2011, and they picked up a 3-1 win to advance to the second round, which also happened to be Marquette’s first ever win over a ranked opponent. MU also snagged a 3-0 regular season win in the most recent meeting in 2018.

Ain’t nothing like jumping straight into the fire, huh? Last season, Western Kentucky went 29-4, earning the program’s 15th bid to the NCAA tournament and just the third at-large bid in program history. They knocked off Bowling Green in the first round for the 1,000th win in program history before taking a 3-0 loss to Kentucky, who was playing host for that pod in the first two rounds. WKU has made it to the NCAA tournament in each of the last four seasons and eight of the last nine. The Hilltoppers will be acutely aware of exactly what this match means for them and their NCAA tournament future when we get to December.

There will be a certain amount of resetting the board for Western Kentucky, as last year was Lauren Matthews’ fifth year of eligibility. She led the team in points and kills per set at 4.81 and 4.21 respectively. In her free time, Matthews averaged just over a block per set. But she’s gone now, leaving Paige Briggs as the leading returning attacker. She had a great year in 2022 with 4.47 points and 3.75 kills per set while hitting .324. Briggs could also serve it a bit, averaging about an ace per match, plus she got after on defense with 2.41 digs per frame and a block every other set. We’ll have to wait and see how WKU adjusts to losing Matthews’ 879 attacks from last season. Kenadee Coyle (1.77 kills/set) and Katie Isenbarger (1.61/set) provided quality secondary attack options, with both women hitting better than .300 on the year. Can they maintain that efficiency if they’re asked to double their swings?

Callie Bauer returns at setter after averaging 11.14 assists per frame a year ago, so that will go a long way towards ironing out hiccups as Western Kentucky adjusts to life without Matthews. Abby Schaefer was the team leader in digs at 2.94 per set, and the Kentucky native is back for her sophomore season in 2023.

Match #2: vs Drake Bulldogs (0-0)

Date: Friday, August 25, 2023
Time: 4pm Central
Location: Frericks Center, Dayton, Ohio
Streaming: Maybe?
Live Stats: Maybe?
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 5-2 all time against Drake. We’re going allllll the way back to 1981 for the first ever encounter, back before MU was officially a Division 1 outfit, and the Golden Eagles have won four straight meetings with Drake. That includes a 3-0 sweep at home in the timeshifted spring 2021 season for the most recent encounter.

Drake went 30-8 last season. That’s very good. It broke their program record for wins, which was previously 25, and they tied their record for Missouri Valley wins in a season with 16. The win total is a little inflated, as they were not an NCAA tournament team after losing the MVC title match in five sets to top seeded Northern Iowa. That left them at 26-7 on the year, and they were at just #62 in the RPI on Selection Sunday, which sent them on to the NIVC, aka the NIT of the volleyball world. They did reach the title match of that event, so credit where credit’s due on that.

Much like Western Kentucky, Drake will be doing some offensive resetting in 2023, and perhaps because this match is on Day 1 of the season, that does Marquette a favor or two. Haley Bush is back after leading the team in kills at 4.18 per set and hitting .269. However, she does not have running partner Mariana Rodrigues with her after Rodrigues wrapped up her time at Drake with a 4.11 kills/set average and a .258 hitting percentage. Both Bush and Rodrigues racked up over 1,300 swings a year ago, so it’s a good thing that they return Bush to the lineup, but the Bulldogs still have to replace a lot of their offense. Taylor Oberpriller averaged 2.95 kills and hit .251 last year, so maybe she can pick up some of the heavy lifting.

Addison Beagle had a great freshman year, averaging 11.52 assists/set and earning herself MVC Freshman of the Year honors. She returns, so again like WKU, perhaps stability at setter will help smooth things out. Jada Wills was everywhere on the floor for Drake last season, averaging more than five digs per set, so having her back to anchor the defense will be a big help. Same goes for Kacie Rewerts, a 6’1” middle from Iowa who averaged 1.41 blocks per set last season when no one else on the team was north of 0.85.

Match #3: vs Dayton Flyers (0-0)

Date: Saturday, August 26, 2023
Time: 5pm Central
Location: Frericks Center, Dayton, Ohio
Streaming: Maybe?
Live Stats: Stat Broadcast
Twitter Updates: @MarquetteVB

Marquette is 8-22 all time against Dayton, although that record goes to 7-18 if you keep it to since MU moved to Division 1. The Golden Eagles had been on a three match winning streak against the Flyers up until the 2021 NCAA tournament when Dayton snagged a 3-1 victory in the first round. The last two meetings between the teams were NCAA tourney contests, with Marquette coming out ahead in 2019 to advance to the second round.

Dayton is coming off a 20-14 season in 2022, including a 12-6 run in Atlantic 10 action. That left them third in the regular season standings, but the Flyers beat #2 seed Davidson to reach the A10 tournament title game before they lost to top seeded Loyola Chicago. That left them with an RPI of 117 on Selection Sunday and with just two top 100 wins, so that brought their season to an end. That snapped a streak of four straight NCAA tournaments for a Dayton program that’s been to the tournament 16 times since 2003. I’d imagine that they’ll see this contest as a strong start to their case for an at-large bid if it comes down to that later this season.

If you’re the kind of person that believes that continuity makes you a better team the following year, then Dayton’s got things going pretty well. They return each of their top four hitters from last season and five of the six women who averaged at least 1.50 kills/set. Now, the catch here is that Taylor Russell appeared in just 73 of their 130 sets, while Brooke Smith played in just 65. If we’re being honest about it, kills leader Lexie Almodovar — 3.96 kills per set in 2022 — played in only 103 sets last season. Dayton didn’t even have continuity last season, so we’ll have to see how all of these women work together as a team in terms of who gets to take the swings when everyone’s on the court.

We’ll also have to see what Dayton does at setter. Alyssa Miller returns after playing in 100 sets and averaging 5.49 assists/set. Livie Sandt is done with her time in Dayton after playing in 79 sets last season and averaging 8.14 assists a frame. What does this mean for who’s actually playing setter regularly this season? No idea!

Dayton’s also got some questions to ask about what they’re doing at libero. Anna Wuensch led the team in digs last season at 3.42, but after her redshirt sophomore season, she’s no longer on the roster. Three other women averaged at least 2.0 digs per set last season, but 1) one was Lexie Almodovar and 2) the other two aren’t on the roster this fall either. This all adds up to a lot more questions than you’d like to see for a team with an eye on an NCAA tournament berth, but the libero part is the easiest to solve out of all of them.