Volleyball season preview: Reigning A-10 champions not satisfied with conference supremacy

The Flyers volleyball team poses with the Atlantic 10 Tournament Championship trophy after their 3-0 win over VCU last season. They hope to go further than the NCAA Second Round this fall. Photo courtesy of Peter Burtnett, Flyer News.

Peter Burtnett | Sports Editor

Following a 14-2 season that included an appearance in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament and saw them crowned Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament champions, the Dayton Flyers volleyball team began their 2021 fall season with a five-set loss in an exhibition match against No. 13 Louisville Saturday at the Frericks Center. 

“It’s almost exciting to see how we competed with a top-13 team in the country,” senior libero and defensive specialist Maura Collins said. “Knowing that we did not play our best volleyball today, we competed and we have a lot of growing to do in the next couple of weeks when we face some tougher matches.”

Beginning with Cincinnati at 12:30 p.m. Aug. 27, the Flyers, picked first in the A-10 preseason poll ahead of VCU, will then face defending national champions and No. 3 Kentucky later that evening at 7 p.m. Although they can take positives from Saturday’s exhibition game against Louisville, the Flyers know they have to improve before the regular season begins.

“It was kind of a tug-of-war between being excited that we held with such a good team playing so poorly,” senior middle blocker Molly Asmus said. “Also being disappointed with how we played, but knowing that there’s hope that some of the mistakes we made were easy, controllable changes. And so I think a lot of our individual focus going out to this next week of practices will be for every individual to have a physical and mental focus and stacking on those mini wins after each practice to build and just improving on those uncontrollable errors for when we face Kentucky.”

Their only loss of personnel being senior Atlantic 10 Setter of the Year Bridget Doherty to graduation, the Flyers in a good position, though the position is an important spot to replace. But the return of experience in every other position creates a seasoned group that nearly reached that Sweet 16 against Pac-12 champions Washington. 

“(The players) know how to win,” Flyers head coach Tim Horsmon said. “And I think as they start to get better in what they’re doing, and obviously we’re trying to figure out the setting position. Bridget was a big piece of that, (setter is) your quarterback.”

Horsmon said three players have been “really working hard” at the setting position for stability. 

“But there’s so much rhythm to what they’re doing and their decisions and growth and being mature enough in some of those big moments to be a setter in this program. But all those other pieces I think are really, really good.”

Returning redshirt senior and two-time A-10 Player of the Year Jamie Peterson will certainly aid in that process, along with the veteran experience of graduate Mahalia Swink and seniors Molly Asmus, Collins and Alli Papesh. 

“I think Jamie having been here around the program and on the court as long as she has brings a lot of experience and a lot of maturity at this point in her career in high-level matches,” Collins said. “I think the way she plays and shows up on the court on the weekends for us is a really good example to the underclassmen… She carries a large load of our offense and is crucial to our service team.”

Also returning is a host of last season’s impact true freshmen, including A-10 First Team and Rookie Team outside hitter Lexie Almodovar, Rookie Team middle blocker Alayna Yates, middle blocker Lindsey Winner and defensive specialist Anna Wuensch. 

Redshirt junior defensive specialist Elizabeth House and redshirt sophomore middle blocker Amelia Moore also round out the impact returnees, Moore being named to the A-10 First Team last season.

Echoing her coach’s sentiments about the importance of returning winning experience, Collins said the return of experienced players is “very encouraging and exciting.”

“We return a lot of maturity and a lot of experience,” Collins said. “Coach Horsmon even texted them at the end of tonight that a lot of the players we have on the court right now have won 1, 2, 3 (or) 4 championships, and we have a lot of players who know how to show up in big moments and know how to win, frankly.”

Asmus also talked about the legacy carried on when a player like Bridget leaves.

“Bridget was (such) a leader that she instilled really important hard work qualities in the underclassmen,” Asmus said. “So when we had our two younger freshman setters (Alyssa Miller and Brooke Nichols) get here this past year, it didn’t take as long of a transition time, we have the time in the summer to grow with them, get to know them, and kind of begin to fit pieces together. And so knowing that Bridget’s legacy was still here even though she wasn’t is something we can feel comfortable in knowing that we’re not going to be here next year, and we have to work really, really hard to continue on (that legacy).”

As a team with less of a ceiling to break through after consistent Atlantic 10 championships and NCAA Tournament appearances, Papesh said the team sat down together during the preseason to talk about what they want their season to look like. 

“It’s honestly the same conversation that we’ve been having ever since we got here as freshmen,” Papesh said. “We want to be in the Top 25. Not only do we want to play against big, ranked teams, but we want to make it a priority and almost an expectation that we’re beating those teams. And I think right now, we’re getting really tired of saying, ‘We’re hanging with them, we’re so close!’ 

“We’re taking all these big-name teams to five (sets), but we’re losing every time by four or five points in the fifth set, and it’s going to be a really big game-changer when it does go our way. And we walk away with that win, and we start to expect it every single time, and I think having so many people that have been in this moment before and returning everybody who played against Washington, which was a really big moment for us, and we expect to be in those moments now, so I think that is really big for our team.”

Collins said having so many players in those moments helps the team to hold each other accountable and not being comfortable with success within the conference and against mid-major schools.

“I think every single person on our roster this year and last year is very hungry to hang new banners in our gym and make history within our program.”

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