By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- Outside hitter Lizzie Stephens (Dallas, Texas) knew that her sophomore season with the Ohio volleyball team in 2017 was going to one of learning and growth.
She had no idea how quickly that process was going to be accelerated.
Stephens, who began the season as Ohio's No. 2 outside hitter, is now in the No. 1 role after senior outside hitter hitter Jaime Kosiorek (Chagrin Falls, Ohio) suffered a season-ending injury in a 3-1 (28-26, 16-25, 25-8, 25-19) loss at Dayton on Aug. 29.
"You have to pick up for what we lost," said Stephens. "I'm taking on the O1 role, which is more of the job that she did. I'm just trying to adjust to the O1 position and getting the bad balls that you get when you play that position. Everyone on the court needs to step up at their position to help balance what we lost."
Through eight matches in 2017, Stephens leads the Bobcats (5-3) 112 kills (3.50 per set) and 13 service aces (0.41 per set). Her 112 kills are good for 27th in the nation. She also ranks second on the squad with 88 digs (2.75 per set) and fourth with 13 total blocks (two solo, 11 assisted; 0.41 per set). Stephens has tallied four double-doubles so far this year. She set new career highs with 23 kills and 20 digs in a 3-2 (23-25, 26-24, 26-24, 24-26, 17-15) loss to High Point last Saturday (Sept. 2) in the Bobcat Invitational presented by Texas Roadhouse at the Convocation Center. Stephens earned a spot on the All-Courtyard By Marriott Invitational Team after finishing second on the team with 34 kills (3.09 per set) and ranking fourth with 28 digs (2.55 per set) as the Bobcats went 3-0 on the opening weekend of the season in Birmingham, Ala., with a 3-0 (25-19, 25-19, 25-23) sweep of Murray State, a 3-2 (25-19, 17-25, 25-20, 22-25, 15-10) triumph over host Samford and a 3-0 (25-18, 25-18, 25-20) sweep of Southeastern Louisiana.
Despite her success so far in 2017, Stephens is still relatively inexperienced as a player at the collegiate level. She saw action in just 13 matches and 26 sets in 2016 before her season as cut short due to an injury. She finished her rookie campaign with 67 kills (2.58 per set), 44 digs (1.69 per set), three service aces (0.12 per set) and one total block (one assisted; 0.04 per set) for 70.5 points (2.71 per set).
Stephens has had the benefit of learning from the one of the best to ever play outside hitter at Ohio in Kosiorek, who has tallied 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. Although Stephens can no longer learn from watching Kosiorek play alongside her, the education in becoming a great O1 still continues.
"She talks to me like she'd probably talk to herself," said Stephens of how Kosiorek is helping her in her position transition. "She's always telling me things, what she'd do. I love hearing from Jaime because when I play next to her, it's, 'Oh, gotta do what Jaime's doing.' I think hearing what she would do and having her input helps a lot. It's a different way of learning. Before, it was watching Jaime, and now, it's listening to her and what she has to say to me. I lost the visual aspect of her playing, but I have to mature a lot because now I'm in the O1."
Stephens will help lead the Bobcats into the Jefferson Cup presented by Fairfield Inn & Suites, which will be held this weekend at Memorial Gymnasium in Charlottesville, Va. Ohio will take on Howard (1-6) on Friday (Sept. 8) at 4 p.m. ET, then face VCU (6-2) at 9:30 a.m. ET and host Virginia (3-3) at 7 p.m. ET on Saturday (Sept. 9).
Howard enters the weekend having lost three in a row after going winless at the Fullerton Classic in Los Angeles. The Bison were edged by Southern Utah, 3-2 (25-20, 11-25, 31-29, 23-25, 17-15) last Friday (Sept. 1), then suffered a 3-0 (25-21, 25-21, 25-16) sweep to San Jose State and a 3-0 (25-16, 25-18, 25-15) sweep to UC Riverside the following day. Shaun Kupferberg has been the head coach at Howard since 2012. The Bison were picked to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference North Division with 22 first-place votes and 172 points in the league's preseason pol.. Howard won the MEAC tournament in 2016 before being defeated by No. 3-ranked Wisconsin, 3-0, in the first round of the national postseason tournament. Senior outside hitter Khaila Donaldson, who was selected as the MEAC Preseason Player of the Year, leads the Bison with 97 kills (3.73 per set) and ranks second on the squad in both total blocks (14 assisted; 0.27 per set) and 66 digs (2.54 per set). Junior middle blocker Olubunmi Okunade has recorded a team-high 22 total blocks (one solo, 21 assisted; 1.00 per set). Junior setter Tamia Dockery, who joined Donaldson on the Preseason All-MEAC Team, has dished out a team-high 251 assists (9.65 per set) and leads Howard with seven service aces (0.27 per set) and 69 digs (2.65 per set). Ohio and Howard will face off for the first time on Friday.
Ohio is 4-1 (.800) all-time against VCU. The Bobcats and the Rams met in both 2014 and '15, with Ohio earning a 3-0 sweep at the Baymont Inn & Suites Invitational in Athens in '14 and a 3-0 sweep at the Mortar Board Premier in West Lafayette, Ind., in '15. VCU enters the weekend having won three in a row. Last Friday, the Rams split a pair of matches at the Bowling Green/Toledo Invitational, falling to Notre Dame, 3-1 (25-12, 23-25, 25-14, 25-22), and topping Toledo, 3-1 (15-25, 25-23, 25-20, 25-14). VCU closed out its stay in Bowling Green with a 3-0 (25-13, 25-19, 25-16) sweep of Southeastern Louisiana on Saturday. The Rams captured their third-straight victory with a 3-2 (21-25, 25-15, 18-25, 25-21, 15-10) triumph over High Point on Tuesday (Sept. 5). Led by fifth-year head coach Jody Rogers, VCU finished second in the Atlantic 10 Conference preseason poll with 84 points, earning one first-place vote. Junior middle blocker Tori Baldwin leads the Rams with 67 kills (2.31 per set), and sophomore outside hitter Vicky Giommarini is right behind her with 66 (2.28 per set). Giommarini has posted a team-high 13 service aces (0.45 per set). Baldwin also leads VCU with 44 total blocks (five solo, 39 assisted; 1.52 per set) while sophomore middle blocker Jasmin Sneed ranks second with 42 total blocks (four solo, 38 assisted; 1.50 per set). Sophomore setter Dajah Ard directs VCU's offense with 171 assists (5.90 per set). Senior libero Rebekah Strange is the Rams' top passer with 129 digs (4.61 per set). The Rams are one the top blocking teams in the country, ranking third with 95 total blocks (13 solo, 164 assisted; 3.28 per set).
Host Virginia enters its weekend tournament with a .500 record after finishing 1-2 at the Appalachian Invitational in Boone, N.C., last weekend. The Cavaliers were swept by East Tennessee State, 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-10) last Friday, then suffered a 3-0 (25-20, 25-16, 25-19) sweep at the hands of Towson the following day before bouncing back with a 3-1 (25-20, 20-25, 26-24, 25-21) victory over host Appalachian State. Virginia is in its first season under the direction of head coach Aaron Smith. The Cavaliers were picked to finish 13th of 15 teams in the 2017 Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason Coaches Poll. Freshman outside hitter Sarah Billiard is Virginia's top attacker with 69 kills (3.29 per set). Sophomore middle blocker Chino Anukwuem has logged a team-high 23 total blocks (23 assisted; 1.10 per set). Sophomore libero/defensive specialist Jane Horner has tallied a team-high five service aces (0.36 per set). Freshman setter Megan Wilson has handed out a team-high 140 assists (9.33 per set). Sophomore libero/defensive specialist Kelsey Miller has compiled a team-high 88 digs (4.19 per set). Ohio is 2-2 (.500) all-time against Virginia. The Bobcats and the Cavaliers last met on Sept. 14, 2013 -- a 3-2 win for Ohio in the WKU Invitational in Bowling Green, Ky. Ohio is 1-1 all-time against Virginia in two trips to Charlottesville, posting a 3-2 win in 1986 and sufering a 3-0 sweep in 1999.
Despite the losses of Kosiorek, redshirt junior middle blocker Katie Nelson (Regina, Saskatchewan) and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Carley Remmers (Filley, Neb.), Ohio has refused the buckle from adversity under the direction of fourth-year head coach Deane Webb. The Bobcats have gone 2-2 since the loss to Dayton, including a 3-1 (25-23, 25-22, 11-25, 25-21) win over longtime rival Marshall on Tuesday at the Convo. Ohio currently ranks 12th in the country with 408 kills (12.75 per set), 13th with 382 assists (11.94 per set), 18th with 70 total blocks (13 solo, 114 assisted; 2.19 per set) and 23rd with 466 digs (14.56 per set). Freshman middle blocker Tia Jimerson (Sugar Hill, Ga.) ranks 13th in the country with a .469 hitting percentage (101 kills-17 errors-179 total attacks) and 12th with 42 total blocks (six solo, 36 assisted; 1.31 per set). Freshman setter Vera Giacomazzi (San Vendemiano, Italy) is currently sixth in the country with 340 assists (10.63 per set).
"We do have very good individual pieces without the players that we lost," said Stephens. "Deane mentioned in practice that the best years are when you struggle and you have those issues and you come back and you win. In the end, it will all be worth it. We're a pretty good team, and I'm excited to see what we're going to do."
After the Jefferson Cup, Ohio will head to University Park, Pa., for the Penn State Classic next weekend. The Bobcats will take on Wake Forest next Friday (Sept. 15) and Yale and host Penn State next Saturday (Sept. 16).