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Women’s VB Preview: Returning starters anchor promising team

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Outside hitter Taylor Louis averaged the fifth-most kills in the country during her freshman season.

Outside hitter Taylor Louis averaged the fifth-most kills in the country during her freshman season.

Photo by Graphic by Brian Georgeson

Photo by Graphic by Brian Georgeson

Outside hitter Taylor Louis averaged the fifth-most kills in the country during her freshman season.

Coach: Ryan Theis (3rd season)

2015 record: 22-12 (4th in BIG EAST)

Key Departures: Setter Mary Nilles, OH Erin Lehman, DS Riley Burchett (Retired from VB)

Players to Watch: OH Taylor Louis, MB Jenna Rosenthal, DS/L Lauren Houg, OH/RS Amanda Green

Outlook: Marquette volleyball begins its quest for a sixth consecutive NCAA tournament berth Aug. 26. That pedigree is a big reason why head coach Ryan Theis expects a lot from his team this year.

“I think like most years, our goal is to compete for a BIG EAST championship, strive for that, advance and be playing our best volleyball in December (for the NCAA Tournament).”

It’s a good thing the Golden Eagles are returning nearly all of their starters, because they are going to need every bit of continuity advantage to deal with their tough opening slate. Last year’s 8-4 non-conference mark is a good target to strive for. Anything above it would be a massive victory.

If you go by the AVCA poll, then Marquette enters the season at 38th in the country (The Golden Eagles are receiving Top 25 votes, but there are 12 other teams receiving more votes). That sounds about right in terms of where Marquette is as a program right now. By the end of the year, Theis hopes to have achieved something more.

“The returners have gotten better at some things, so from that aspect, I think we have a chance to be better. I think players have just grown and gotten better at some things we’ve been working on.”

Outside hitter: Outside hitter was the Golden Eagles’ biggest strength last year as well as their most prominent shortcoming. Sophomore Taylor Louis averaged an incredible 4.93 kills per set — the fifth-highest mark in the country — and became the first Marquette player to rack up more than 600 kills in a season.

However, Louis was often ineffective in other phases of the game. Her suspect passing and back row defense often forced Theis to take her out of the match in certain situations. The service line was also a problem for Louis: she stroked only nine service aces compared to 35 service errors. She did improve toward the end of last year, though, and Theis sees continued improvement in offseason training.

“She’s doing quite well with all that,” Theis said. “I think the Europe trip and USA Volleyball experience has helped her with that. She continues to practice it, you know, she needs to be better at it … she works really hard and she’s been great these first five days (of off-season training).”

Louis will obviously be the starting outside hitter this year barring injury or the biggest sophomore slump on record, but the question of who will occupy the other OH spot remains unanswered. Redshirt freshman Amanda Green made a case for the starting job with strong showings in Marquette’s spring exhibition games, so don’t be surprised if she’s in the lineup for the first point of the season.

“She’s increased her range as an attacker and she’s always been really good with block setup,” Theis said of Green. “She’s maturing as a player and as a person and so she’s right in that competitive fight for trying to win minutes.”

True freshman Madeline Mosher will also compete for the starting job. She can play all six rotations, which usually leads to more opportunities for court time.

Highly touted recruit Allie Barber can play outside hitter as well as middle blocker, but Theis has said that he plans to redshirt her unless injuries force him to do otherwise.

Setter: Senior Sara Blasier was about as steady of a presence as any coach could ask for at setter. Her 10.36 assists per set was third-best in the BIG EAST, and the two players that posted better tallies graduated at the end of last year. She is on track to be the best setter in the conference this season unless some of the younger passers make a huge leap. Paige McKnight of Georgetown comes to mind.

Just because Blasier had previous success does not guarantee her the starting job, though. One of Theis’ mantras is “age doesn’t mean anything in our gym,” and that especially applies to true freshman Lauren Speckman, the No. 75-ranked recruit in the country out of San Jose, California.

“They’re competing now for minutes and they’ll have to do that all year long,” Theis said.

Middle Blocker: Meghan Niemann and Jenna Rosenthal did a nice job in their first year as a middle blocker duo, and there’s no reason to expect a starting lineup change this season. Both players hit over .300 while averaging more than a block per set last year. Senior Teal Schnurr will probably provide some spot duty off the bench when either player needs a break.

Theis is particularly excited about Rosenthal’s improvement. The redshirt sophomore played on the U.S. Collegiate National Team in China over the summer, and the experience has had a positive impact on her game.

“This is her best preseason,” Theis raved. “I was (saying) today that she had a really nice, consistent five days. In the spring, I feel like three out of every four days were good days, but after the China trip and the Europe trip …  hopefully, nine out of ten days are good at this point.”

Defensive specialist/Libero: There’s been a roster shakeup in Marquette’s back row. Defensive specialist Riley Burchett, who played in every set last year, is no longer with the team. According to Theis, Burchett decided at the end of last season that she did not want to play collegiate volleyball.

“She just basically told me that she was hanging it up,” Theis said. “When she went to college, she kind of just thought that she was supposed to play volleyball, then she got here and kind of wanted a life without it.”

Two players have emerged as the most likely candidates to take Burchett’s spot. One is JUCO transfer Manon Geoffroy. She impressed DI coaches as the starting libero for San Jacinto College, which won the 2015 NJCAA volleyball title. The other is Geneva Yee, who played for Theis at Ohio and has not been on a DI volleyball team in well over a year.

Besides that one change, Marquette’s back row looks solid. Seniors Ellen Hays and Lauren Houg return to head up a defense that held opponents to a .181 hitting percentage last season. Houg in particular was stellar, posting a conference-best mark of 5.17 digs per set. She and Tessa Fournier of Seton Hall are the two best liberos in the conference by any metric.

Schedule: Aug. 26 at USC, Aug. 27 vs. UC Irvine (USC Invitational), Aug. 27 vs. Santa Clara (USC Invitational), Sept. 2 vs. IUPUI (Wichita State Tournament), Sept. 3 vs. Cincinnati (Wichita State Tournament), Sept. 3 at Wichita State, Sept. 9 vs. St. Louis (Kentucky Tournament), Sept. 9 at Kentucky, Sept. 10 vs. Virginia (Kentucky Tournament), Sept. 16 vs. Iowa State, Sept. 17 vs. UW-Milwaukee, Sept. 17 vs. Missouri State, Sept. 23 at Creighton, Sept. 25 at Providence, Sept. 30 vs. Georgetown, Oct. 1 vs. Villanova, Oct. 5 vs. Xavier, Oct. 7 at St. John’s, Oct. 8 at Seton Hall, Oct. 12 vs. Butler, Oct. 15 at DePaul, Oct. 21 vs. Providence, Oct. 22 vs. Creighton, Oct. 28 at Villanova, Oct. 29 at Georgetown, Nov. 5 vs. DePaul, Nov. 12 vs. Seton Hall, Nov. 13 vs. St. John’s, Nov. 18 at Butler, Nov. 19 at Xavier

Marquette’s out-of-conference schedule is every bit as tough as last year’s. The season starts with an away match against the USC Trojans, who share the No. 7 ranking in the AVCA’s preseason poll. That fixture headlines a dastardly 12-match out-of-conference slate that sees Marquette play six teams that made last year’s NCAA tournament and seven teams that won 20 matches or more last season. Theis’ squad also does not get to play in the Al McGuire Center until the fourth weekend of the season.

You might assume that the schedule would cut Marquette a break after its gauntlet of challenges to start the season, but you’d be mistaken. The first game of conference play for Marquette is a road match against reigning BIG EAST champion and NCAA tournament team Creighton. Even though the Blue Jays are a familiar opponent, Theis is unsure of how the two squads compare to each other.

“It’s a little too early to know …. in terms of the program I think they are a better team this year than they were last year. We’ll have to wait until we get a little closer to playing them to know how good we are versus how good they are.”

After that, things do get a good bit easier, although some challenging dates remain. Those dates include a home-and-home series with Villanova and Xavier, plus the return match with Creighton in the Al McGuire Center Oct. 22.

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