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Marquette Volleyball: Golden Eagles have to adjust to being the hunted

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Senior middle hitter Kelsey Mattai (10) says the team needs to focus on its mental game as it opens Big East play. Photo courtesy of Marquette Athletics.

Heading into Big East play this weekend, the Marquette women’s volleyball team carries high expectations. Picked second to No. 10 Louisville in the preseason, the team had some lofty preseason goals.

But as senior middle hitter Kelsey Mattai said, those objectives have changed.

“We’ve reset our goals,” Mattai said. “We came together as a group and evaluated where we are and where we need to be. We’re really focusing on our mental game.”

That mental game has doomed the Golden Eagles in a few matches this season, most notably in five set losses against Northern Iowa and Pacific. In both matches, Marquette lost after holding 2-1 set advantages after the first three frames.

“We’ve got to win at home,” coach Bond Shymansky said. “If we’re able to win at home, we’ll at least win the tournament title. We have a lot of good home match opportunities, and that’s where we need to assert ourselves better.”

The first of those opportunities comes this Saturday against Syracuse. While the Orange went just 7-6 in the non-conference season, it did knock off No. 18 Iowa State on the road two weekends ago.

“They are a hot team in our league right now,” Shymansky said. “They have a new coach and new players out on the court who are pretty dynamic. We’re going to see a different Syracuse team than we’ve seen in the past years.”

With Syracuse included, Shymansky envisions a much improved Big East in 2012.

“There are rising teams in the league this year that may be hard to see coming,” Shymansky said. “Teams like Syracuse, St. John’s, Rutgers with a 14-1 record and Seton Hall. Maybe in recent years we’ve beat them in conference play, but now they’re winning, and there is something different happening within those programs.”

All improvement notwithstanding, the Big East favorite aside from Marquette has to be Louisville. Not only is it a top 10 team, but it features one of the most imposing hitters in the country in Lola Arslanbekova.

“It’s easy to look at someone like Louisville who’s ranked top 10 right now and say that’s a marquee match, and it is,” Shymansky said. “We get to play them twice in the regular season, and that’s great.”

Even though Louisville carries the loftiest conference expectations, Shymansky acknowledges that the pressure on his team has grown as well.

“The biggest thing we need to understand is that we represent a really big match opportunity for a lot of conference teams,” Shymansky said. “The target is getting bigger and bigger on our back, and when that happens, you’re going to get everybody’s best effort every time you play.”

A key for dealing with that growing target will be launching a balanced attack with valuable contributions from all the hitters. That includes Mattai and senior right side Holly Mertens, who both fly a bit under the radar offensively.

“I feel really confident,” Mattai said. “I worked really hard this preseason just building that mental part of my game. When I’m hitting well, it can help the team overall.”

“This weekend’s matches brought my confidence up,” Mertens said. “Once we go into Big East, we’ll be ready to fight.”

To ultimately succeed and win the Big East, Shymansky says that the Golden Eagles can’t overlook any match for the rest of the year.

“There’s really nobody we can take for granted,” Shymansky said. “There’s nobody we can take advantage of by being Marquette. We’re going to have to play great volleyball. We kind of caution our team about not having such a high opinion of ourselves that we think things are going to be easy.”

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