Before our summer preview series fell to the wayside and became a series of videos, we talked a bit about Volleyball’s defining characteristic this year. And it’s not so different from last year, except the turnover and young team at least comes with some consistency at head coach.
Names to Know
Cassie Shado, Jr MB
We’d argue that Shado has been UB’s most consistent player over her first two seasons, forcing her way into a crowded lineup in 2014 and helping the Bulls weather Amber Hatchett’s injury in 2015. The junior earned All-MAC recognition in each of her two seasons and last year led the Bulls in blocks and hitting percentage while appearing in every set. Hyperathletic and now an upperclassman, Shado could help the Bulls in a big way if she takes a step forward this year.
Amber Hatchett, R-Sr MB
Hatchett missed much of 2015 with an ACL injury, but was on her way to another big season, averaging .93 blocks and 1.69 kills per set at the time of injury. She had a bigger offensive role in 2014, but in the right circumstances can average almost 2.50 kills per set. She’s always good for a thundering spike or two a match and absolutely has the ability to get hot and carry UB for a set.
Megan Wernette, So RS/MB
Another middle blocker, we know, but it’s that much a standout area for the Bulls this year. The 6-3 Wernette is the tallest player on the team and was a pleasant surprise in her freshman season, finishing with the second-highest hitting percentage on the team. Listed as a right side, Wernette could offer Coach Lipsitz a ton of lineup flexibility, but she didn’t play meaningful time as a right side in her first year. Still, she’s a strong player in the middle when Shado and Hatchett sub out.
The senior was quietly dependable last year, putting together 14 double-doubles, including nine in 11 matches to start MAC play. Lipski leaves a big hole behind in both offense and defense, as she led the team in both kills and digs, and the Bulls have little in the way of experienced replacements.
UB got a taste of life without Prinzbach last season after the senior’s year was cut short by injury, but Marissa had established herself as Buffalo’s top setter over the first two-thirds of the season. Because of that time missed to injury, however, setter is likely a less dire situation than those looking to replace Lipski’s output.
It’s not just Lipski’s digs that will need to be replaced, but also Ooyama’s. The Rochester-area native finished second on the team in that stat in 2015, a reliable presence on a frequently shaky back line. Setting aside the stats, Ooyama’s return would have been welcome simply to have another upperclassman on the roster.
Scout McLerran, S
McLerran committed to UB early in Coach Lipsitz’ tenure and stuck to it. A highly-touted setter who won three consecutive state championships in Tennessee and received All-State recognition as a senior, McLerran will almost certainly challenge sophomore Madison Clark for time this year.
Taina Benitez and Lauren Slavoski, OH
Benitez and Slavoski are hard to separate much: they’re both freshman outside hitters who step right into a position of need for the Bulls in attack, as UB needs to replace Megan Lipski and avoid relying on Amber Hatchett and Cassie Shado for all the offense this year. We don’t know a whole lot about either; both received numerous all-region and all-district accolades, and while Slavoski played for a strong program in eastern Pennsylvania, Benitez comes from an area - southwest Ohio - that’s been good to UB in the past.
With just the sheer number of true freshman on the team, there will likely be more than one in the starting lineup - the only question is which will it be? Madison Clark vs. Scout McLerran at setter will be an interesting bout to follow. Clark stepped into the starting lineup midway through her freshman campaign due to injuries and was solid, earning 50+ assists in two matches and 40+ in three others. McLerran, as mentioned above, comes from a powerhouse prep team and is accustomed to playing with and against elite talent.
The battle at outside hitter will also be worth noting. UB only returns Valisha Watkins and Raven Jordan at the position from last year’s team, with Watkins the only amassing substantial time. Incoming freshmen Taina Benitez and Lauren Slavoski will be competing for a starting role. Both come from well-regarded club teams and will be ready to compete for a spot immediately.
There’s no need to complicate this much: Six of UB’s most productive servers in 2015 are no longer with the program, and the Bulls return only 20% of their aces from last year. On the flip side, Buffalo surrendered a far greater number of aces than they produced last season, and would do well to somehow take a step forward in backline defense even as they lost almost all backline players with collegiate experience.
Much like last season, the first month of competition is a grueling marathon of road trips; the Bulls play their first 16 matches on the road, including the entirety of their out-of-conference schedule. It’s easier than 2015, however, as Robert Morris is the only team the Bulls will face that qualified for the NCAA tournament last season.
Those road trips take the Bulls to Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Georgia for tournaments before a return to Western New York to face Niagara in Lewiston before one final tournament in Pennsylvania.
MAC play opens at Kent State, but the Bulls won’t take to Alumni Area for the first time until October 1st when Ball State comes to town. In all, UB will only play eight matches on their home court - not exactly advantageous to a youthful team.
For the first time since 2013, UB starts a season with the same coach from the year before. That should be a huge asset for a program that’s slowly improved over the last three years, but the Bulls don’t enjoy much continuity anywhere else.
Coach Lipsitz will have to start multiple freshman and find substantial time for even more. Positionally, she’ll have to be creative to find space for Shado, Hatchett, and Watkins, while quickly finding solutions for every other position group. As pleasing as UB’s two straight appearances in the MAC Tournament have been, they didn’t qualify with room to spare in either season, and it’s hard to see a third straight showing in 2016. If this year can be the beginning of further stability in the program, Buffalo’s young group could be a strong core for multiple seasons hereafter.