Sept. 25, 2013
By Alex Marcheschi
OhioBobcats.com - Staff Writer
ATHENS, Ohio - Ohio Volleyball has been known to test itself with a gauntlet of difficult non-conference opponents under head coach Ryan Theis, and this year especially, it's paying off.
The Bobcats are currently 10-2 and have taken an impressive 10 sets from teams ranked in the top-25 nationally opponents. The team set the tone for its great start with an impressive 3-0 victory in Eugene, Oregon on Aug. 3 against the eighth-ranked Ducks, who played in the National Championship match last year.
Ohio then went down to Western Kentucky and swept the No. 21 Hilltoppers on their home court for the first time since the 2010 season.
In all, the 'Cats have played four top 25 teams this season and have secured a 2-2 record against them. Seven of the Bobcats non-conference opponents qualified for the 2012 NCAA Tournament and 13 posted an RPI of 100 or better last season.
The phrase "trial by fire" is applicable for the Bobcats as Theis assembles his early schedules with a definite plan in mind.
"We want to get pushed, we want to get better, and we want to see what our weaknesses are going into conference play. Those are all benefits of playing a tough schedule," Theis said. "RPI is also important, and trying to get an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament."
Sophomore setter Abby Gilleland (Bull Valley, Ill.) is on board with Theis' strategy and she relishes the opportunity to sharpen her game against some of the best.
"Coach Theis always does a good job at putting us in situations so that we can eventually learn what to expect," Gilleland said. "I definitely think it prepares us well for conference season and strengthens us as a program."
Theis' scheduling also helps in recruiting. The sixth-year coach uses the opportunities to play on the big stage to entice players to join his program.
"We sell in recruiting that we're going to play some of the best teams in the country every year and we'll compete and try to get some wins. We have done that in my time here," he said.
While it could potentially present a double-edged sword, Theis has done a good job of avoiding the sharp end of it in his time here. There's always a chance of getting tired out and discouraged against top competition, but the Bobcats welcome it and use it to their benefit.
"One of the good things about playing really good teams in the beginning of the season is that you find out what's broken," Theis said. "You have this idea in your mind about what can and can't work, and then you can fix it."
The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate goal, and while playing tough opponents helps Ohio's RPI, it also sets the team up well for Mid-American Conference play.
"We want to have a really good RPI at the end of the season," redshirt junior Liis Kullerkann (Keila, Estonia) said. "Starting off tough is great because once we get to conference play we are ready for a variety of challenges."
The familiarity with elite play is what sets Ohio apart from the rest of the MAC, and it's a big reason why Theis has compiled a 65-15 MAC record in his first five seasons at Ohio.
Simply put, the competition before MAC play starts prepares the Bobcats for the in-conference slew of games.
"We'll see a number of hard hitters on a MAC team, and then think back to the non-conference play and think `Well we had to worry about four of those then, so we can do this now,'" Kullerkann said.
She then went on to sum up the Bobcats' strategy perfectly, encapsulating what Ohio Volleyball is all about.
"We set the bar high," Kullerkann said. "And then we work hard to reach it."
Alex Marcheschi will serve as the OhioBobcats.com staff writer during the 2013-14 season. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @BobcatFeatures.