It is hardly time to hit the panic button on the Marquette volleyball season.
Yes, Marquette is under .500 right now at 2-3. But that’s the kind of thing that happens when you schedule the way that head coach Ryan Theis scheduled for the 2023 season. Sometimes you play two neutral site matches and one road match against ranked opponents in your first five contests, and sometimes you get the short end of the stick in those games. Mix in the fact that Marquette was without middle blocker (and perhaps team MVP?) Carsen Murray for the first one of that trio, and there’s a certain amount of “well, that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Besides, there’s way too many opportunities left on the calendar for the Golden Eagles to go into panic mode. Take this weekend for example. If Marquette can figure out how to pick up two home wins at the McGuire Center, all of a sudden, MU is 2-3 against ranked teams this season and has a win over a top 10 opponent. Then there’s still a match against #1 Wisconsin coming next week and a home match with #6 Oregon down the road, too. There are just too many opportunities left down the line for the Golden Eagles to panic about an 0-3 start against ranked foes. That’s the up side of scheduling this way: You’re just going to keep getting chances to do something special.
However.... the way Marquette went about losing to Purdue and Kansas last weekend... well, that’s more concerning than the losses themselves. Playing teams in the top 25 is roughly equivalent to playing a second round NCAA tournament game. These are good teams, and sometimes you can play well and lose, and that’s life. Marquette, on the other hand, had four tries to close and lock the door on the Boilermakers with three straight match points and then a fourth one in the fourth set as it went to extra points.... but they couldn’t get it done and lost in extra points in the fifth set. One day later against the Jayhawks, Marquette let Kansas get out to notable leads in each of the first three sets of the match, and while they rallied to win the first, they couldn’t do that in the next two, and Kansas was able to win a competitive fourth set to end the match.
Like I said: Winning these types of matches — and Marquette has two more of them this weekend — is hard. That means that you have to take advantage of situations tipped in your favor, and you have to not put yourself into situations that stack the odds against you. The Golden Eagles did both last weekend and took two losses as a result.
Hopefully, lessons have been learned and Marquette is a better volleyball team today than they were a week ago. Maybe that, combined with a pro-MU crowd on 12th Street, will be enough to go 2-0 this weekend.
Match #6: vs #9 Pittsburgh Panthers (4-1)
Marquette is 6-6 all time against Pitt. The first meeting was a 3-0 Panthers sweep back in 2003, but most of the encounters took place when the two squads were in the Big East at the same time. MU’s first victory in the series came in the 2006 Big East tournament, and the Golden Eagles have won the last five meetings, which all happened between 2010 and 2012.
Pitt is coming off a 31-4 season that ended with a 3-2 loss to Louisville in the Final Four. Seems good. That’s why they started the 2023 season tied for fifth in the AVCA top 25 with Nebraska, and a 3-1 loss in their opener on a neutral court to then-#17 BYU is responsible for the ever so slight tumble that the Panthers have taken in the poll since then. As you can see from their record, they haven’t lost since then. That includes a very weird series with then-#15 Kentucky this past weekend. The Panthers went down to Lexington on Friday and snagged a 3-0 sweep..... and then both teams made the trip to Pittsburgh for another match, which went 3-1 to Pitt. I don’t have an explanation as to why they did this other than 1) It was officially named the 84 Lumber Volleyball Classic, and 2) the press release on the event mentions shooting for attendance records in both buildings. They did play at Rupp Arena in Lexington and Petersen Events Center in Pittsburgh, which are not the normal home gyms for each team, for whatever that’s worth to you.
Olivia Babcock is leading the Pitt attack as she’s the only hitter of note who has played in all 17 sets this season. She’s averaging 2.71 kills per set and hitting a whopping .386 on 88 swings. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re a 6’5” freshman, I guess. Bre Kelly is #2 on the squad in kills, but the 6’4” junior missed the last two sets of the match in Lexington and all of the second Kentucky match this past weekend. Valeria Vazquez Gomez and Torrey Stafford are both averaging north of two kills per set, but both women are hitting under .200 in 15 and 16 sets respectively.
Rachel Fairbanks has started at setter in all five matches this season for the Panthers, but head coach Dan Fisher is doing some kind of rotation situation. Fairbanks is only averaging 6.82 assists per set, but she doesn’t have a consistent ever match rotation partner. Haiti Tautua’a is the closest as she’s played in every match but 1) she’s only appeared in 14 of 17 sets and 2) she’s only averaging 3.57 assists/set. It’s not a fair split of duties, although combining Tautua’a and Fairbanks together does get you to over 10 assists per set, and that’s some pretty good setting.
It appears that the Panthers do a bit of defense by committee. Libero Emmy Klika is averaging just 3.82 digs per set, which seems like a very low number. It seems even lower when I tell you that no one else on the roster is north of two digs per set. Fairbanks is the closest at 1.94/set. Pittsburgh has five women averaging at least a block per set... but Babcock is 1) the lowest of the five at 1.00 even and 2) the only one who has played in more than 12 of the Panthers’ 17 sets this season. Like I said: By committee. If Bre Kelly is back in the lineup this weekend, she’ll be a force going both ways at the net with 1.30 blocks/set.
Match #7: vs #18 Tennessee Volunteers (5-1)
Marquette is 0-3 against Tennessee. The first meeting was down in Knoxville in what was the 2001 season finale — scheduling was different back in the day — and that was followed with a neutral site meeting in 2007 and a date in Milwaukee in 2008. MU has won at least one set against the Vols in each of the three encounters.
You wouldn’t think that a 17-14 record is the sign of a highly successful season, but the fact of the matter is that Tennessee made the NCAA tournament last year. They lost in five sets to Purdue in the first round in a neutral site contest in Louisville, but making the tournament is making the tournament, no matter how you shake it. While it was the 17th appearance in the tourney for the Vols, it was their first back-to-back trip in a decade.
Tennessee started the year outside the top 25 in the preseason AVCA poll, but a 3-0 start to the season bumped them in, and beating a San Diego team that started out the year at #12 (but had fallen out of the poll in Week 1) helped the Vols move up into the top 20 this week. Going to five sets with #1 Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon, including needing to win sets #3 and #4 to do that, probably helped their case, too. That ended in a loss for UT, but it was their first loss of the season, and hey, no shame in losing to #1 in #1’s building, right?
Morgahn Fingall and Jenaisya Moore make for a quality 1-2 offensive punch with both women averaging above three kills per set. Fingall is the leader at 3.57/set, and both women hit just a shade below .300. With two quality options like that, it’s going to be hard for Marquette to divert UT’s offense to Erykah Lovett, but it’s probably in MU’s interest. Sure, she’s averaging 2.82 kills, but the 5’11” junior from Georgia is only hitting .201.
Caroline Kerr is running the offense for the Vols, handing out 10.43 assists per set. It’s worth noting how well she’s doing, as she was just named SEC Freshman of the Week while guiding the attack for the #18 team in the country. Yelianiz Torres is ostensibly the anchor of the back line with 3.57 digs per set, but Lovett isn’t that far behind her at 3.29. Fingall is Tennessee’s top blocker, but she’s averaging just 0.50 stuffs per frame. That makes me wonder if they’re not chasing blocks as a tactical decision or if it’s just something that the Volunteers aren’t very good at to this point of the season.