For UB Volleyball, Fall 2013 was a tale of two seasons. A 12-0 start showed that after a few years under Todd Kress, the team had learned to win, but tougher competition towards the end of non-conference play challenged the Bulls, who were unable to get much of anything going in the second half of the season. The 12-0 start lapsed into a 6-12 finish that cost Kress his job despite being one of UB's better years since their entrance into the MAC.
Despite the mediocre record in 2013, the Bulls are losing a ton of talent and experience as they transition into the new year, as six seniors saw the Alumni floor in last season's five-set Senior Day victory over Bowling Green.
Chief among those six are defensive stalwarts Kelly Svoboda and Carissa McKenna. Svoboda, of course, finished her senior year by being named MAC Defensive Player of the year, and setting all sorts of UB records including 634 digs on the season. By averaging over five digs per set, Svoboda established herself well atop the UB books and as one of the top ten defensive players in NCAA Volleyball.
While Svoboda was the last line of defense, corralling opposing attacks and helping UB transition to offense, it was McKenna who better than anyone else in Blue made sure it never got to that point. She led the team with 18 solo and 119 on the season for a total of 137, an average of nearly 1.5 per set.
Of course, nothing is this simple, but in Svoboda's 5+ digs and McKenna's 1 and a half blocks per set, UB will need to replace 7 points per set on the defensive side of things with their new libero and front line. When you only play to 25 in volleyball, that's quite a bit.
I covered her in my Fall Sports piece earlier this week, but Bishop, a junior, is unquestionably the player to watch for the Bulls this fall. Her sophomore season established her on the UB record books and earned her UB's first-ever All-MAC First Team selection.
With two seasons to go, Bishop holds a spot in the school's top ten for kills in a season with 400, and last year became just the eighth player in school history to manage 20 kills and 20 digs in the same game when she did it against Akron. She managed 20 kills six other times on the season, and looks to "go Halo" at will on all comers this coming season.
UB is losing one stud blocker in Carissa McKenna to graduation, but is in good hands thanks to the return of her 2013 partner in the middle in Hatchett. The rising junior became a superstar last year who rarely left the floor, playing in over 100 sets and averaging upwards of a kill per set, but really making her mark on the defensive side, finishing second only to McKenna on the team with 128 total blocks. Look for her to continue to shut down opposing outside hitters in 2013.
Scott played through injuries and the resulting limited playing time in 2013, but looks to return in force as both a senior leader and a 'thunder and lightning' attacking option across the way from Bishop. She played in over 100 sets in both her freshman and sophomore seasons, including every single UB set in 2012.
As a freshman, Scott was named to the MAC All-Freshman team and upped her game in her sophomore year to a second team All-MAC recognition while leading UB with 318 kills on an over 26% hitting percentage.
Think about that: without even getting to new folks on the team, UB's two top outside hitters have 718 kills between them in their two most recent healthy seasons. They'll have to share the ball this year, but opposing blockers won't be able to key in on one or the other.
With so many players departing, you can expect to see some new blood in the Blue and White this fall. Volleyball is definitely tougher than football and basketball to get a picture of incoming talent, and it's probably well easier in soccer, as well.
I would be remiss if I said much more without first directing you to Paige Miller's excellent FanPost on the recruiting class from earlier this year. Paige covers volleyball and women's basketball as well as any of us editors, and you would be well-informed if you did nothing but read his comments.
That said, turn your eyes to Danielle Marotto, Tessa Ooyama, and Nakita Bozinoski. Marotto is a transfer who has played the last two years at UMass-Boston and is returning to WNY after playing for Lancaster High School. Ooyama and Bozinoski are incoming freshman, but the three are all defensive specialists by trade and will look to step into Svoboda's very large shoes.
UB has another transfer among their newbies in Marissa Prinzbach, who is originally from Cincinnati, Ohio, and has spent the last two years playing for UConn. The setter will bring two years of experience to Amherst and have two years left to play.
Skylar Cavazos, Hannah Varley, and Cassandra Shado round out the newcomers. All told, the 7 new faces bring in three new defensive specialists, a setter, two middle blockers, and an outside hitter.
You'll also see a returning face this season - Sable Staller will come back from a redshirt season and add a ton of height and experience to the front line.
Oh, yea, and there's a new coach! Reed Sunahara has just a little bit of experience with this volleyball stuff. I'll just direct you towards Bull Run's piece on his hiring rather than rehash things.
The Bulls open the season in late August on the 29th with some home court advantage, as UB will host the Buffalo Invite at Alumni Arena. The powers that be have drawn a mix of opponents, from local and semi-local teams like Canisius and Siena, to Lehigh from the volleyball hotbed of Pennsylvania, and finally including Ole Miss (ed note: ADDW going to WORK!)
The Bulls will continue tournament play, filling up much of their non-conference slate with three further tournaments before beginning Mid-American Conference play in late September. UB will head to Tampa, FL to play in a tournament hosted by South Florida before working their way to Chicago to compete in the UIC Invitiational against small, but strong regional teams in UIC, Western Illinois, and Eastern Kentucky.
The final tournament action for the team will feature a rematch against Western Illinois as well as contests against Indiana and Butler in the Hoosier Classic. Before entering MAC play the Bulls put regional bragging rights on the line with a bout against Niagara. UB swept the Purple Eagles with ease in their season opener last year.
Buffalo gets a comfortable start to MAC play before a tougher stretch, as they open with two home matches against Bowling Green and Miami before entering a three-week period that sees five road games and only one chance to play at Alumni. In the home stretch of the season the Bulls will play five of their final eight games at home and then (hopefully!) advance to the MAC tournament, which will be held in Athens, OH this year after the Bobcats claimed the 2013 Conference Championship.
Then they play Albany after that. I don't get it either.
There's no need to continue to talk about Todd Kress' dismissal, but the outlook for this year is very much colored by the foundation he built in his time at Amherst. In a different world where Staller and Scott don't suffer injuries, perhaps the team finishes stronger and makes the conference tournament. But their absence last year allowed younger players to get playing time and prepared the team for a transition that seemed to not be 100% about success on the court.
As a result, Sunahara inherits a team that has top-flight MAC talent at several skill positions while also a surprising amount of experience among the younger contributors despite losing six seniors to graduation last year. Sunahara's extensive resume and history of success at Cincinnati was always going to earn him more than a single season or two to set up his program, but it certainly seems like things are falling into place for the Bulls to hit the ground running.
Don't look for the Bulls to start 12-0 again: last year's nonconference schedule was exceptionally weak until we hit Ohio State. Instead, volleyball success at UB is now dependent on how competitive the team can be in the MAC. After missing out on the conference tournament last year by a tiebreaker, it's a simple barometer: If the team is better, they need to make the tourney, and if they're not they won't. It would be a clear step forward for a program that, short of Kress' first and last seasons, has generally been an afterthought among the rest of the conference.