A little less than a year ago, UB Volleyball had more positive momentum than ever before in the MAC era. Reed Sunahara had stepped in to lead the program and despite the turnover among the staff and the loss of MAC Defensive Player of the Year Kelly Svoboda led the Bulls to their highest-ever finish in the conference.
That the winning season - Buffalo had not had consecutive winning seasons since 1995-1996 - came while MAC First-Teamer Tahleia Bishop missed time here and there was more impressive. After fighting her way up the depth chart, Cassie Shado played her way onto the MAC All-Freshman Team, and with a small senior class, UB looked good for 2015.
Instead, it's been another offseason of change. Bishop was the first to depart, and was no longer listed on the roster in mid-January. Sunahara himself left to coach West Virginia, surprising most everyone in the volleyball world in the process. Four more players left the team afterwards, most notably Skyler Day, who had played her way into a regular role late in the season.
A protracted coaching search saw UB's first choice unable to take the job before Blair Brown Lipsitz, a former multiple-time All American and National Champion at Penn State, was hired. Lipsitz had previously helped the program during their spring practices, and so brings some familiarity with UB and the team into her first collegiate coaching job.
The loss of senior-to-be Bishop, the only Bull ever twice named First Team All-MAC, cannot be overstated. Her 2013 and 2014 seasons hold the top two spots in the UB record books in points per game, and she led UB in every hitting stat by a large margin save hitting percentage, which is a measure of efficiency rather than volume.
Losing either Bishop or Day would have been disconcerting for UB's depth in 2015. That the team lost both while bringing in no transfers leaves them extremely thin on experience. Day didn't light the world on fire as a freshman, but did improve as the season went on and put together some especially effective matches late in the year to help Buffalo eke into the MAC Tournament.
Staller is the one expected departure made more painful by the unexpected success of her senior year. After missing two seasons to multiple knee injuries, Sable saw the floor for the first time since her freshman year and put together a strong, versatile year, frequently playing through the full rotation and finishing fifth on the team in kills and second in hitting percentage despite getting far fewer attacking opportunities than her teammates.
Amber Hatchett, Akeila Lain, and Cassie Shado
A pair of seniors and a sophomore who put up strangely similar numbers in blocking and attacking from the middle last year, this trio could be the heart of the team. As Paige notes in his FanPost preview (see sidebar below), Coach Lipsitz could fit all three on the floor at once.
UB will be looking for help in attack as well with three of 2014's four leading outside hitters gone. Even last year, Lain and Hatchett were third and fourth on the team, jointly accounting for 30% of the team's kills. Given the glut of new faces in attack, I wouldn't be surprised to see the duo remain the immediate options after Megan Lipski in 2015.
It's comforting to me that Lipski is a senior, because all signs point to her leading the way for the Bulls as the only outside hitter with any collegiate experience. Her work this year in a leadership role may be just as important as what happens on the court.
Now a senior and one of a number of upperclassmen in the likely starting lineup, Lipski may be the most important player on the team as UB looks to return to the MAC Tournament. She quickly moves from "capable second option" to the lone outside hitter with any experience. All three returning middle blockers - Hatchett, Lain, and Shado - have a nose for points that can supplement the offense, but it sure seems that the majority of the scoring load will be placed on the senior from Louisville.
UB got good production from all its freshmen last year, but Bozinoski's beginning-to-end campaign at libero was particularly impressive. There's a slight chance that she faces competition from Abby Beecher, but the gut feeling is she got too much time last year to not play an important role in this one.
Bozinoski's showing in 2014 proved she was up to the challenge of being Buffalo's premiere back line defender, even as a freshman. This year, with less experienced support, the stakes are higher. If she can up her already-impressive game, UB might be able to weather its offseason transitions better than you might think.
This freshman class could see a half-dozen regular contributors and maybe a starter or three, or each and every one could be buried in the depth chart. Watkins and Jordan are very likely to see time at outside hitter, and both Wernette and Clark could similarly offer support to UB's weakest phase, though each could fight into the rotation at her primary position - middle blocker and setter, respectively.
Abby Beecher may be the most intriguing, coming to Buffalo after originally committing to Syracuse. She had a strong prep career and seems more likely than not to find time on the back line.
|@ Penn State
|Villanova (@ PSU)
|Stony Brook (@ PSU)
|Murray State (@ Seattle)
|@ Ole Miss
|Belmont (@ Ole Miss)
|So. Miss (@ Ole Miss)
|Navy (@ Syracuse)
|New Hampshire (@ SU)
|@ Bowling Green*
|@ Eastern Michigan*
|@ Central Michigan*
|@ Ball State*
|@ Kent State*
The 2015 UB Volleyball schedule is a grueling one - starting off with a trip to Happy Valley to participate in the Penn State Classic. UB will face returning national champion (and Head Coach Blair Brown Lipstiz's alma mater) Penn State first, followed by matchups against Villanova and SUNY rival Stony Brook. The Bulls will then head cross country to Washington to take on the Huskies, who finished in the top-10 in the AVCA Volleyball coaches poll last season, and Murray State before heading back east to Oxford, Mississippi to take part in the Rebel Classic.
The team will then play their first games in New York when they take on Big-4 rival Canisuis before heading down I-90 to take on Navy, New Hampshire and Syracuse in the Big Orange Classic.
It won't be until September 24th that the Bulls see a home match, when MAC play begins in Alumni Arena against the Akron Zips. UB enjoys consecutive weekends at home just once on the season, when the middle of October brings Kent State and conference powerhouses Ohio, Western Michigan, and Northern Illinois into town in consecutive matches.
The lack of home matches is especially disappointing for a team with many new faces. Only eight matches are scheduled in Alumni Arena this season, down from 14 in 2014. Add in that the long road schedule over the first month of the season includes top flight competition, and it doesn't seem Coach Lipsitz could have built a tougher slate to start her career.
Don't Miss Paige's Preview
Don't Miss Paige's Preview
There were milestones, but last year wasn't necessarily great. The ‘best-ever showing in the MAC' was still only 6-10 and eighth in the conference, and even that was barely salvaged after a long slide eclipsed a decent start to conference play and before the roster and coaching turnover in the following offseason.
A second year with a winning record and 6-10 finish the MAC was a success for Reed Sunahara with Tahleia Bishop. Without her and two more of UB's top 2014 attackers, a third such season is difficult to imagine, even despite four returning senior starters. If Hatchett, Lain, Lipski, and Prinzbach all take a big step forward, that's a chunk of leadership and experience that could make a difference. Failing that, Coach Lipsitz has pieces in place to start building a strong program: a large freshman class and three sophomores who earned valuable experience last year. If she and they are all on the roster a year from now, that alone will be a success the program hasn't seen in a while.