Colorado Springs, CO – When putting together a preseason article on DU volleyball, what better place to be than Denver’s preseason practice at the USA Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs? The team is preparing for the start of the upcoming season August 25th when they open their season against Tennessee State in Charleston, S.C.
With a solid week of scheduled practices and sleeping, eating and breathing volleyball alongside Olympic hopefuls, the team is building on their culture, identifying program goals, and focusing on skill building. The practice that I attended featured 6-on-6 play for over two hours with peer feedback, small group coaching, speed, and skill development.
Video: 6-on-6 games were the foundation for coaching feedback and evaluation.
In the past, we’ve called DU volleyball ‘the next big thing’ at DU based on their continuous improvement by earning an unprecedented three straight NCAA Tournament bids. That opinion hasn’t changed.
Another program breakthrough came last year in an NCAA Tournament loss in Palo Alto, California against the eventual NCAA champion Stanford Cardinal. Denver was pummeled in the first set (25-12) but knotted Stanford 18 points each the last two games – forcing timeouts and pushing Stanford harder than they were pushed in their championship final.
That match opened eyes – especially for DU’s players and coaches.
Could DU actually build an elite program capable of ‘winning it all’ in women’s volleyball? (The only private universities to ever win are Stanford [’94, ’96, ’97, ’01, ’04 ’16] and USC [’81, ’02, ’03]). A sport that, traditionally, is the domain of large, state universities is seen by DU’s coaching staff as an intriguing possibility. Men’s soccer has done it. Women’s gymnastics has done it. Why not women’s volleyball?
Well, a deep NCAA run is possible this year despite the fact that the Pioneers lost four quality starters (Nola Basey, Moni Corrujedo, Monique Domme and Ruth Okoye) as well as reserve Kelly Morton. These key departures may look like the team is in rebuilding mode but for Hogan and his staff, they look to “reload” with key freshman additions. – liberos Macy Carrabine, Lauren McManus, and outside hitter Lydia Bortolo, setter Ellie Anderson, middle blocker Tina Boe, and veteran transfers Becca Mau (Idaho) and Teal Schnurr (Marquette). The talent is so deep that Coach Hogan has decided to redshirt 6’7″ freshman Jaden Sandoval. Patience and the development of a player pipeline is part of the plan to build a successful, sustainable program at Denver to compete at the next level.
On top of these additions, the Pioneers return rock solid libero Cassidy Rooke who is in the top five for digs in DU program history. Veteran hitter Kayla Principato is top 10 in attack percentage and has aspirations of competing for a spot on the US Olympic team some day. Look for junior Emma Willis (middle blocker) to anchor the front line with key blocks and junior Becca Latham (outside hitter) to attack on the front line. And other experienced players from last season will step up too.
Think I’m being too optimistic?
USA Today recently named DU as one of the 10 Best Places to Play College Volleyball. Add to that, DU recently upgraded Hamilton Gym with new seating and a new volleyball specific floor and rebranded the once stale space into what head coach Tom Hogan is calling one of the best volleyball venues in collegiate volleyball. So, the environment this year should improve the fan experience as well.
Hogan has the confidence to believe that the Pioneer program can be special – very much like his successful peer, men’s soccer head coach Jamie Franks, who has an office next to his. Both have the belief that they can take their programs to new heights. Add experienced assistant coaches Katelin Batten and Jesse Tupac who both coach national and international squads and combine that with Hogan’s Olympic coaching experience and DU has access to some of the best players as well as access to the very best training and coaching techniques
But what should fans expect from the 2017 squad?
The benchmark for an excellent collegiate volleyball season is 20+ wins and an NCAA tournament appearance. With the loss of two games (IUPUI’s hasty exit from the Summit League) from the schedule, the graduation of key seniors, a difficult non-conference schedule (#1 Texas, #4 Minnesota, and University of San Diego #22 in the AVCA Coaches Poll), and top 50 rival South Dakota in the Summit League, DU may not hit the 20 game win mark this season. Also, South Dakota, with the addition of several new transfers, may battle DU for the regular season championship. When the Summit League playoffs come to Denver in November, expect the Pioneers to be peaking and win their fourth Summit League title in a row to advance to the NCAA Tournament.
This season certainly won’t be easy. And the Pioneers are likely to receive a tough first round seed but after last year’s ‘Stanford Experience’ anything is possible. However, the longer view is even more exciting as DU tries to become an elite power in women’s volleyball. By building for the long haul and developing the right culture, it just might happen.