The UB Volleyball team finished their non-Conference schedule with a 7–5 record. This stands in contrast with the previous season’s record in which the Bulls won only 4 matches all season.
There’s a lot to like from this year’s team, and also some things that need improvement. #One4Mon
But first, a caveat: non-Conference results don’t always translate to MAC success. So, let’s flash back to the 2013 season.
That year, the Bulls went 12–0 to start their non-Conference season. Their last non-Conference match was against nationally ranked Ohio State, also undefeated. Buffalo freshman Siena Wilder served an ace on the first play of the match; and the Bulls never led again. Still, a 12–1 non-Conference record, only loss to nationally ranked Ohio State, sounds pretty good, right? Well, Buffalo went 6–10 in MAC matches, and did not advance to the MAC Tournament.
What is there to like among the 2021 Bulls? The main thing I see is steady improvement in key areas of the game. Buffalo opened the season with a 5 set loss to Syracuse, struggling at serve receive and back row defense at times. With fewer errors, they would have knocked off an ACC team. Seemed like a good start, despite the loss. The next match, Buffalo looked — yes, I’m going to say it — awful against Albany. UB’s serve receive and back row defense was the main culprit, as playable balls were consistently passed backwards or shanked sideways and out of bounds. They lost 3–0 to Albany, and the seven UB fans in attendance were probably thinking the same thing I was: “Oy vey, this is going to be a long season”. (And it looks worse in hindsight, as Albany is now 3-10 for the season)
Since then, Buffalo’s back row defense has grown, going from weak to solid to downright spectacular at times. In Buffalo’s last four matches, they have out-dug their opponents. Part of the change was the decision by head coach Scott Smith to put freshman libero Hannah Jacoby into the lineup. Jacoby, who has not played libero before this season (she was an outside hitter in high school) looked shaky at first, but in the last two weeks, Jacoby has gotten the job done. Another freshman, outside hitter Maria Futey, also struggled early at serve receive and back row defense, only to show great improvement in those areas.
The other area where Buffalo has shown great improvement is on offense (not surprising when the defense is putting up better passes). The Bulls have hit over 0.300 in three of the last 4 matches, after not hitting 0.300 before that. One area of great improvement was the insertion of sophomore right side Emma Gielas into the lineup. Gielas led the team in points scored a year ago, and is 2nd on the team this year in points per set, and hitting over 0.300 for the season. Sophomore middle blocker Olivia DeBortoli came off the bench to replace injured junior Abby Leigh, and has become a powerful force, leading the team in hitting percentage (and also leads the team defensively in blocks per set).
Freshman setter Mandy Leigh also has shown great improvement since the first week of the season. Being a freshman setter is never easy, but Leigh’s confidence has grown and her performance has improved along with the rest of the team. Leigh is now setting up hitters well on routine plays, but more importantly, Leigh is setting up more kills on out-of-system plays.
Add in solid performances by returning players Kyndal Bacon, Milla Malik, Abby Leigh and Courtney Okwara. Yes, there is a lot to like so far this season.
You want more evidence? The last two weeks, Buffalo has swept the MAC East Player of the Week awards. The week before, DeBortoli won MAC East Defensive Player of the Week, making three consecutive weeks that a UB player has won that award.
So, what areas are the Bulls struggling at? Consistency, primarily. They are a young team — among the players who have seen significant playing time, they have 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 3 sophomores and 3 freshmen. Some matches they serve extremely well, some not so well. Same for blocking. One area of the lineup which has not produced great offensive numbers so far is the second outside hitter position, where Futey is hitting only 0.116, but she’s a freshman and very likely will get better.
Buffalo begins their MAC schedule on Friday, September 24 at 6pm and then Saturday, September 25 at 4pm, against Miami (OH) at Alumni Arena.