During the nine consecutive road games the Gaucho women’s volleyball team had to open the season, it was easy to tell that this year’s wouldn’t come close to the record-breaking success of last year’s squad.
Several things about the Gauchos’ (5-4 overall, 1-0 in the Big West) first nine games point to areas for improvement and reveal the general youth and inexperience that the Gauchos may not shake until mid-season.
“The effort and attitude have been good,” Head Coach Kathy Gregory said. “The hitting hasn’t been up to standards, and our blocking hasn’t been as good as we would like it to be.”
In their four losses, the No. 15 Gauchos have posted a combined .163 attacking percentage.
“The offense is our top priority because we have to hit better to stay in the matches,” Gregory said.
However, it will be difficult to gauge their improvement statistically, because the numbers are not going to be there, Gregory said.
In three of their four losses, the Gauchos have been out-dug, and opponents have registered more blocks each time they have beaten UCSB.
“We’re trying to read the plays better and know where the ball is coming from,” Gregory said. “Some of it is technique, and some of it is discipline. The blocking is going to improve.”
The two players who handle most of the blocking, middle blockers sophomore Megan Blackshire and red-shirt freshman Olivia Waldowski have been pleasant surprises. Blackshire leads the team in attacking percentage and is sixth in the Big West in that category, and set a new career high in kills in Saturday’s match. Waldowski is also gradually establishing a presence at the net and has baffled opponents with her crazily floating serve that earns her an ace every other game.
“Megan has performed well in almost every match,” Gregory said. “Olivia has a great serve, and is now an offensive threat.”
Senior outside hitter Erica Menzel is bearing most of the leadership responsibilities for the team as one of only two seniors.
“Erica is doing a lot,” Gregory said. “Her numbers are down, but she’s adjusting to handling the pressure on the team.”
Talk has not died down about Menzel’s chances at All-American honors, but more of her focus is on helping younger players gain Division I volleyball experience.
“I like when people come to me for support,” Menzel said. “We don’t have that go-getter mentality yet, that strive to go dig a ball or make a pass. When we get the confidence we need, we won’t break down as a team.”
Junior setter Mari Bell, a pivotal new regular, has had flashes of brilliance as well as subpar performances that she chalks up to learning the ropes.
“We’ve worked a lot on my defense,” Bell said. “I need to become more aggressive and more consistent.”
Though picked to win their second consecutive Big West title, the Gauchos will need to have all cylinders running to finish in first place.
“A lot of other teams have the potential to win league,” Menzel said, taking note of UC Riverside knocking Long Beach State out of the national polls. “Nothing is going to be given to us because of what we accomplished last year.”