By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- The path to success is seldom a smooth, clear road. There are often obstacles and unexpected hurdles that need to be dealt with along the way.
So it will be for the Ohio volleyball team in 2017.
The Bobcats (3-1) rode into Dayton on Tuesday (Aug. 29) to face the in-state rival Flyers with an undefeated record after going a perfect 3-0 at the Courtyard By Marriott Invitational last weekend in Birmingham, Ala. They left with not only a tough 3-1 (28-26, 16-25, 25-8, 25-19) loss but also the loss of one of their captains. Senior outside hitter Jaime Kosiorek (Chagrin Falls, Ohio) suffered a season-ending injury at the end of the first set. Ohio will be forced to continue on this year without a student-athlete responsible for 1,038 career kills, which ranks as the ninth-most in the rally scoring era in program history, and 120 career service aces, which ranks as the third-most in the rally scoring era in program history.
"I look at it as they have an opportunity," said fourth-year head coach Deane Webb of his team. "Really, some players that haven't played as much will have that opportunity this weekend. I believe we are working toward being a good team. When you lose players to injury, we're not going to act like it didn't happen. Our potential changed. We're not as good as we were before Tuesday night, and that's just reality. But, I still think we have a chance to be a very good team. I told the team that night, and I stand by it, is that it's just going to take a lot more work now. I'm willing to put in that work, and I hope they are, too."
That opportunity will come to Webb's players in front of their home fans in the form of the Bobcat Invitational presented by Texas Roadhouse this weekend at the Convocation Center. The Bobcat Invitational features two Power Five conference opponents and another 2016 NCAA Championship qualifier. The Bobcats face off against Southeastern Conference opponent Georgia (4-0) at 10 a.m. ET and Big 12 Conference opponent Oklahoma (1-2) at 7:30 p.m. ET on Friday (Sept. 1), then close out their home tournament with a matchup against High Point (1-2) at 2 p.m. ET on Sept. 2. Click here to see the full Bobcat Invitational schedule. Jake Hromada, the voice of Ohio volleyball, will have the call of the action on against Georgia and Oklahoma on ESPN3. Hromada will call Saturday's match against High Point on StretchInternet's GameCentral.
Stephens is currently tied with Kosiorek for the team lead with 47 kills (3.92 per set) and ranks fifth with five assisted blocks (0.33 per set) and third with 37 digs (2.47 per set). She earned a spot on the All-Courtyard By Marriott Invitational after she ranked second on the team with 34 kills (3.09 per set) and fourth with 28 digs (2.55 per set) over three matches last weekend in Birmingham.
"Lizzie was already off to a great start this year," said Webb. "What's different is now she'll have to take a greater role instead of complimentary role. She'll sometimes have to take some of what we consider the bad swings. You trust your most athletic outside hitter or your best player to get some of those bad balls and do something good with it, whereas if you're the secondary outside hitter, sometimes you're just getting the good situations, so she'll have to deal with some of that. She's serving well. She's passing pretty well for us."
Remmers has played in 12 career matches for Ohio -- including three this year. After Kosiorek was injured on Tuesday, Remmers stepped in and finished with 10 digs, six kills and an assisted block.
"I think the one thing that is important for our team to know is that we certainly lost some offense, we lost some leadership, we lost some different pieces, but, Carley, of the ones that have started, is the best defender of the group, as far the back row," said Webb. "She's a good passer. She's a good blocker. There are a lot of things that she offers that we shouldn't see a big decline. She will have to really work on making sure that she's on time to attack. She can attack at a high level. She's a good player. She's had a great deal of success in the past. She is someone who has a real desire to compete late in a game. Even a year ago, she was forced into service when she had to play the middle last year during this tournament. At least this year she's playing in the right positon. She's a much better athlete than she was a year ago."
After redshirt junior middle blocker Katie Nelson (Regina, Saskatchewan) went down at the end of the second set with an injury on Tuesday, Ohio's lineup featured no team captains and just one upperclassman -- redshirt senior middle blocker Ali Lake (Liberty Township, Ohio). The Bobcats featured a talented but young squad to begin with, with freshman setter Vera Giacomazzi (San Vendemiano, Italy), freshman middle blocker Tia Jimerson (Sugar Hill, Ga.) and freshman libero Macy Reihing (Lexington, Ky.) all starting and sophomore middle blocker Sara Januszewski (Oak Creek, Wis.), sophomore libero Meredith Howe (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and sophomore outside hitter/libero Allyson Vaughn (Glenview, Ill.) coming off of the bench.
"It's more about the emotional leadership during a game, having different voices," said Webb. "That was the challenge on Tuesday night. When you lose both captains to injury in a span of 30 minutes, we kind of lost our voice and lost our heartbeat as a team. In the second set, we lost our best player, but we're outhitting them by 200 points, we're outscoring them by seven or eight points. But, then we lost our second captain, and the team was just almost a ship without a rudder and not knowing how to function. So, the communication piece will be important. We'll rely on some different voices out there to help lead our team emotionally when we go into those tough moments. You're going to have good moments in matches, and you're going to have tough moments, and you need good voices on your team. So, we'll be relying on some of our secondary leaders to move into more of a primary leadership role for us to be playing at a high level."
Webb will lean on Stephens, Remmers, Lake, Howe and junior setter/outside hitter Stephanie Olman to help provide that voice this weekend. Lake, a First Team All-Mid-American Conference selection in 2016, currently ranks fourth on the squad with seven total blocks (one solo, six assisted; 0.58 per set) and has added 18 kills (1.50 per set). Olman led the team and ranked third in the MAC with a career-high 1,065 assists (10.98 per set; 26th in the country, first in the MAC, fifth-best in program history in the rally scoring era) in 2016.
A positive for Ohio is that its rookies have proven to be more than capable so far in 2017. Giacomazzi has distributed 160 assists (10.67 per set) over four matches. She is also tied with Howe for second on the team with three service aces and ranks third with nine assisted blocks (0.60 per set). Jimerson is hitting at a .484 clip and ranks third with 37 kills (2.47 per set) and leads the Bobcats with 18 total blocks (three solo, 15 assisted; 1.20 per set). Reihing leads Ohio with 46 digs (3.07 per set).
The Bobcat Invitational field will certaintly test the re-tooled Ohio lineup.
Georgia started the 2017 season by going 4-0 at the Benson Hospitality Invitational in Athens, Ga., last weekend. The Bulldogs swept Presbyterian, 3-0 (25-11, 25-21, 25-20), and George Mason, 3-0 (25-16, 25-18, 25-22), last Friday (Aug. 25), then swept UNC Asheville, 3-0 (25-17, 25-13, 25-18), and LIU Brooklyn, 3-0 (25-18, 25-20, 25-15), last Saturday (Aug. 26). Freshman outside hitter T'ara Ceasar leads Georgia with 38 kills (4.22 per set) while freshman outside hitter Rachel Ritchie is right behind her with 37 (4.11 per set). Ceasar is also tied with senior defensive specialist/libero Cassidy Anderson for the team lead with five service aces. Redshirt freshman middle blocker Kianna Young and sophomore setter Meghan Donovan are tied for the team lead with six assisted blocks. Donovan has also dished out a team-high 115 assists (9.58 per set). Anderson leads Georgia with 43 digs (3.58 per set). Tom Black is in his first season as head coach of the Bulldogs. Georgia was picked to finish 11th of 13 teams in the 2017 Southeastern Conference Preseason Coaches' Poll. Ohio and Georgia will square off for the first-time ever on Friday morning.
Oklahoma dropped two of three matches at its own NIKE Invitational to open the new year last weekend. The Sooners opened the season with a tough 3-2 (25-23, 25-23, 21-25, 17-25, 15-11) setback to Seton Hall last Friday. Oklahoma then split a pair of matches on Saturday, sweeping Northwestern State, 3-0 (25-16, 25-20, 25-21), but falling to Colorado, 3-1 (25-11, 23-25, 25-16, 25-14). Junior outside hitter Alyssa Enneking leads Oklahoma with 40 kills (3.64 per set). Freshman middle blocker Paige Anderson has tallied a team-high 14 total blocks (one solo, 13 assisted; 1.17 per set). Junior setter Morgan Miller has recorded a team-high seven service aces (0.58 per set). Junior setter Audrey Alford has handed out a team-high 61 assists (5.08 per set). Freshman defensive specialist Kira Morikawa leads the Sooners in passing with 28 digs (2.55 per set) while Miller has added 27 (2.25 per set). Oklahoma is led by head coach Santiago Restrepo, who has been the head coach of the Sooners since 2004. The Sooners were picked to place eighth of nine teams in the Big 12 Conference in the league's preseason poll. Ohio and Oklahoma square off for the second year in a row after meeting in the NIKE Invitational in Norman, Okla., on Sept. 9, 2016 -- a 3-0 (25-12, 25-19, 25-18) sweep for the Sooners.
High Point went 1-2 last weekend at the NIU Express Holiday Inn Invitational in DeKalb, Ill. The Panthers began 2017 with a 3-1 (25-11, 23-25, 25-20, 25-19) triumph over host Northern Illinois last Friday, but suffered a 3-0 (25-20, 27-25, 25-19) sweep at the hands of Cal Poly later that day. High Point's opening weekend ended with a 3-1 (21-25, 25-18, 25-22, 25-23) loss to Dayton on Saturday. Senior outside hitter Haley Barnes leads High Point with 31 kills (2.82 per set), and junior middle blocker Molly Livingston is right behind her with 30 (2.73 per set). Livingston also leads the Panthers with 16 total blocks (two solo, 14 assisted; 1.45 per set). Barnes is tied with sophomore setter Jenna Smith for the team lead with six service aces (0.55 per set). Smith has dished out a team-high 73 assists (6.64 per set) for the Panthers. Freshman defensive specialist Abby Bottomley leads High Point with 50 digs (4.55 per set). The Panthers won the Big South Conference tournament after going 23-10 in the regular season last year. High Point fell to No. 7-ranked North Carolina, 3-0, in NCAA Championship First Round action. High Point was picked to repeat as Big South champions in the league's preseason poll, and Barnes and Livingston represented the Panthers on the 2017 Preseason All-Big South Conference Team. Tom Mendoza is in his second year as head coach of the Panthers.
"Georgia and Oklahoma are just bigger," said Webb. "When you're in a Power Five conference, you have to have size. High Point is high-skill team with a good system that works. They're all pretty successful teams."
Despite the adversity they have faced this week, Webb said his team is excited to play in front of its home fans for the first time in the 2017 regular season.
"It's always great to be at home," said Webb. "We love playing in the Convo. We love being front of the band and the home fans. It'll definitely be a positive for our team. Coming home is always great."
Ohio's homestand continues next Tuesday (Sept. 5) with a 6 p.m. ET matchup against longtime rival Marshall at the Convo.