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Volleyball preview: Young team anxious to prove itself

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The operative word for Marquette volleyball this season is “new.” A new outside hitter, new middle blocker, new libero, new setter and plenty of new non-conference opponents mark the fourth year of head coach Ryan Theis’s tenure at Marquette.

While last year’s Marquette team went 23-9 and captured the program’s sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the current team bears little resemblance to that one. Nine players have either graduated or transferred since the end of last season. Eight newcomers will take their place.

“The hardest part is going to be getting them on the same page going into four weekends of very tough opponents right across the preseason,” Theis said of the newcomers. “To get everybody on the same page with how we’re going to play offense and defense, how much skill time we’re going to spend versus system time, I think all that stuff is tricky with a young team.”

That uncertainty might be why the BIG EAST coaches only put Marquette third in the conference’s preseason poll, behind odds-on favorite Creighton and the rising Butler Bulldogs.


Finding a new offensive focus

Marquette’s offensive formula for the last two seasons was simple: Set the ball high for Taylor Louis on the outside pin and let her slam it. Now that the all-conference outside hitter has transferred to Iowa, the Golden Eagles are going to need new strategies on offense.

Five of the Golden Eagles’ eight newcomers are either outside hitters, middle blockers or right sides, positions that are at least partially responsible for the offense. Those five players will be charged with soaking up over 3,000 attack attempts – over 70 percent of Marquette’s total from last year – that went to players who are no longer on the team.

Theis views the turnover as an opportunity to re-allocate some of those swings, especially the 40-plus attempts per match Louis took, to several different players. “I’d like us to have a more diverse offense and have kill percentages across the board be sufficient for us to distribute the ball well,” Theis said.

If Marquette is to replicate the success it had last year, returning all-conference players Allie Barber and Jenna Rosenthal will have to lead the way. Barber, a sophomore, averaged just under two kills per match with a solid .280 hitting percentage. The junior middle blocker Rosenthal did her one better, registering a .363 percentage that was second best in the conference.

In addition to being an efficient attacker, Rosenthal will assume a de facto leadership role as one of the most experienced people on the team. “We have a lot of new people which is exciting and that’s a great thing for our program,” Rosenthal said. “It’s just important we have that strong returning core so being able to step up and grow together over (the spring season) prepared us to take on and instruct the new people.”

Two particular new people of interest are freshman outside hitters Hope Werch and Kortlyn Henderson. Both players were among PrepVolleyball’s senior aces, which is a designation awarded to the top 250 players in the country.


Two-player competition at setter

As if integrating new outside hitters into the offense wasn’t already hard enough, Marquette is going to have a new person setting to them too. Two-year starter Sara Blasier graduated at the end of last season, which leaves sophomore Lauren Speckman and freshman Sarah Rose to compete for the job.

Both Speckman and Rose are more similar to each other than they are to Blasier. Marquette’s former setter was 6-foot-1 and involved on the block while both new setters are 5-foot-9 or under, which limits their capabilities at the net. Theis noted that Speckman and Rose are both athletic, consistent setters, which more than makes up for the lack of height.

“It might be a system where they’re both playing some. We’ll have to figure that out and let them compete for it,” Theis said. “It’ll come down to how our hitters hit off of them.”

Although coaches and players ween’t allowed to have any contact until practice officially opened in early August, Speckman has been training with the new players since the start of July and getting used to their tendencies. “We’ve been in the gym almost every single day every week since early July, making sure we work (the newcomers) on what our system is and getting to know them better on and off the court,” Speckman said.

One of the ways Speckman set herself apart last year was at the service line, notching six aces in limited action. Her performance prompted Theis to sub her in for other servers when the team needed a spark.

“Serving is one of the things you can control,” Speckman said. “You can stand behind the line and you can do whatever you want with the ball. For me, that’s always been a big part of my game.”


Six-rotation players add versatility

Only one of last year’s back row starters, senior defensive specialist Manon Geoffroy, is returning this year. Although Marquette has a few incoming defenders to fill the vacancies, they may face competition from an unexpected source: outside hitters.

“It’d be nice for continuity’s sake to have some people playing all around,” Theis said. He may have the personnel to do just that, as Miami (FL) transfer Anna Haak averaged 2.36 digs per set while playing all six spots on the court. She even had 20 double-doubles (matches with at least 10 kills and 10 digs).

Sophomore outside hitter Madeline Mosher has also been a six-rotation player – someone who plays in both the front row and the back row – since her high school days, and played in the back row for much of last year. Although Mosher struggled on offense, hitting only .107, Theis is pleased with her offensive progress, which may lead to more court time.

“She was used to getting set all the time,” Theis said of Mosher. “She had, what was it, 97 kills in two matches in the state semifinal and final? … (College) was a huge adjustment for her and then in the spring we were able to work through that a lot and make her so much more comfortable.”


First up on the schedule…

The Golden Eagles will head to paradise – Honolulu, Hawaii – to face the volleyball equivalent of hell at the Rainbow Wahine Invitational. Marquette will play the University of Hawai’i, UCLA and San Diego, three teams that stayed in the top 25 for much of last season, in the span of 48 hours. Tipoff for the first match against Hawai’i is scheduled for 11:55 p.m. CT on Friday. UCLA will follow on Saturday at 9:45 p.m. and San Diego will close out the trip at 7:45 p.m. the same day.

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