By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- The learning process continues for an Ohio volleyball team (6-5) that is currently playing just two upperclassmen after injuries struck the Bobcats' lineup the second week of the 2017 season.
That process has had its ups and downs, and the Bobcats experienced both last weekend in Charlottesville, Va., at the Jefferson Cup presented by Fairfield Inn & Suites.
Ohio opened the third weekend of non-conference play with a 3-1 (25-19, 17-25, 25-21, 25-23) victory over Howard last Friday (Sept. 8). The second day of the tournament was not as kind to the Bobcats, though. Ohio suffered a 3-0 (25-11, 25-12, 25-22) sweep at the hands of VCU on Saturday (Sept. 9) morning, then suffered another 3-0 (27-25, 25-21, 25-17) sweep at the hands of host Virginia that evening. The Rams limited the Bobcats to a -.019 (29 kills-31 errors-103 total attacks) hitting percentage. VCU also dominated at the net, outblocking Ohio by a 15-3 count. The Cavaliers held the Bobcats to a .118 (32 kills-19 errors-110 total attacks) hitting percentage.
"Serve receive and team defense are areas that really need to improve," said fourth-year head coach Deane Webb of his assessment of his team's 1-2 weekend at the Jefferson Cup. "Even the matches that we've won, I don't know that we defended at a high level. Against Virginia, there were many, many balls that we could have defended -- even should have defended -- that we didn't. Serve receive is just not at a level that it needs to be to run our middles. We think our middles can be pretty effective. But, if we don't pass well enough, we're going to struggle to get them the ball."
Ohio was hampered by 50 attack errors in six sets in its two losses last Saturday in Charlottesville.
"That goes back to serve receive," said Webb. "Every time you attack, you're going against a well-formed block. You have four hands in front of you, and the defense is sitting there waiting for your attacks. Sometimes, you press. You want to make an intelligent shot, but, at the same time, you realize that if we're not playing well, you have too high of a sense or urgency when you're attacking that I have to go get a kill right now, even though everything is perfectly well formed on the other side. That sometimes leads to errors. If we clean up serve receive, I think the hitting errors should go down.
Webb pointed to Ohio's thrilling come-from-behind 3-2 (19-25, 20, 25-23, 25-21, 15-7) victory over Oklahoma on Sept. 1 at the Bobcat Invitational presented by Texas Roadhouse as a potential turning point for his young team's confidence. The challenge for him and his coaching staff is to make sure last Saturday's setbacks do not have the opposite effect the squad.
"The big thing is not to ever get too high or too low," said Webb. "It's a matter of trying to find what are the things that we can improve that will have the biggest payoff for our team right now. We feel like serve receive and defense are those areas. For us, as coaches, it's not getting really too high or too low emotionally and understanding, win or lose, that there's always things that we need to work on."
Ohio's next test promises to be a challenging one. The Bobcats make the drive to University Park, Pa., for the Penn State Classic this weekend at one of the great atmospheres in all of college volleyball -- Rec Hall. Ohio opens the weekend tournament with a 5 p.m. ET matchup against Wake Forest (7-2) on Friday (Sept. 14). A live video stream of the match will be available. The Bobcats then battle Yale (4-2) on Saturday (Sept. 15) at 1 p.m. ET before clashing with No. 2-ranked Penn State (7-0) at 4 p.m. ET. The match between Ohio and the Nittany Lions will also be streamed.
Ohio is a perfect 3-0 all-time against Wake Forest. The Bobcats and the Demon Deacons last met Sept. 3, 2005 -- a 3-0 sweep for Ohio at the Louisville Labor Day Invitational. Bill Ferguson is in his second year as the head coach at Wake Forest. The Demon Deacons went 3-0 last weekend at the Wake Forest Invitational in Winston-Salem, N.C. Wake Forest topped William & Mary, 3-1 (24-26, 25-21, 25-21, 25-21) on Friday and then edged USC Upstate, 3-2 (25-22, 17-25, 26-24, 23-25, 15-7), and swept Maryland Eastern Shore, 3-0 (25-18, 25-19, 25-20) on Saturday. Wake Forest was picked to finish 11th of 15 teams in the 2017 Atlantic Coast Conference Preseason Poll. Senior outside hitter Kylie Long, who was named to the Preseason All-ACC Team, leads the Demon Deacons with 121 kills (3.67 per set). Sophomore outside hitter Caroline Rassenfoss has tallied a team-high 15 service aces (0.45 per set) and ranks second on the team with 83 kills (2.52 per set). Junior middle blocker Katie Moore has posted a team-high 41 total blocks (three solo, 38 assisted; 1.24 per set). Sophomore middle blocker Caitlyn Della ranks second on the team with 33 total blocks (four solo, 29 assisted; 1.00 per set) and third with 70 kills (2.12 per set). Freshman setter Madeline Holt has distributed a team-high 203 assists (8.83 per set) while redshirt senior setter Bailey Shurbet has dished out 133 (8.31 per set). Senior libero Caroline Wolf is Wake Forest's top passer with 155 digs (4.70 per set).
The Bobcats meet Yale for a third time, with the programs splitting the first two matchups. Ohio and Yale face off at the site of their last battle. Yale edged Ohio, 3-2, in an NCAA Championship First Round match on Dec. 5, 2008, at Rec Hall. The Bobcats won the only previous regular season meeting, earning a 3-0 sweep of the Bulldogs on Sept. 9, 2006, at the Holiday Inn Express Volleyball Invitational in Stony Brook, N.Y. Erin Appleman has served as the head coach at Yale since 2003. The Bulldogs went 1-2 last weekend at the Santa Barbara Tournament in Santa Barbara, Calif. Yale split a pair of matches on Friday, topping host UC Santa Barbara, 3-1 (25-23, 26-24, 26-28, 25-23) but falling to Arkansas in a sweep, 3-0 (33-31, 25-18, 25-17). Yale's weekend ended in a 3-0 (25-19, 25-21, 25-12) sweep at the hands of USC on Saturday. Junior outside hitter Kelley Wirth is Yale's top attacker with 66 kills (3.30 per set). Junior outside hitter Gray Malias leads the Bulldogs with eight service aces (0.44 per set). Freshman middle blocker Destiny Daniel has piled up a team-high 22 total blocks (four solo, 18 assisted; 1.22 per set). Sophomore setter Franny Arnautou directs Yale's offense with 122 assists (6.10 per set). Junior libero Kate Swanson leads the Bulldogs with 63 digs (3.15 per set).
Ohio will take on Penn State for just the second time. The Nittany Lions swept the Bobcats, 3-0, on Aug. 31, 2008, in the Hawaiian Wahine Classic in Honolulu. Penn State is guided by legendary head coach Russ Rose, who is in his 38th season at the helm in University Park. He has led the Nittany Lions to seven national championships, which is tied with Stanford for the most in NCAA Division I. The Nittany Lions went 24-10 last year and advanced all the way to the NCAA Regional Semifinals. Penn State swept LIU Brooklyn, 3-0, and knocked off Pittsburgh, 3-1, before being edged by Nebraska, 3-2, in the third round of the national postseason tournament. Penn State was picked to win the Big Ten Conference in the league's preseason poll and opened the 2017 campaign ranked sixth in the 2017 American Volleyball Coaches Association Preseason Poll. The Nittany Lions have climbed up to second after starting the year 7-0. Penn State went 2-0 last weekend at the Big Ten/Pac-12 Challenge last weekend, sweeping Colorado, 3-0 (25-22, 25-18, 25-21) last Friday, then surviving defending national champion Stanford, 3-2 (24-26, 25-22, 23-25, 25-17, 15-11), the following day. The Nittany Lions are currently ranked third in the country in hitting percentage (.340; 374 kills-105 errors-792 total attacks), 22nd in kills per set (14.38), 23rd in assists per set (13.46; 251 assists) and 28th in blocks per set (2.69; 70 total blocks; 17 solo, 106 assisted). Senior outside hitter Simone Lee, a 2016 AVCA First Team All-American, leads Penn State with 106 kills (4.08 per set). Senior middle blocker Haleigh Washington is hitting at a .505 clip (64 kills-eight errors-111 total attacks), which ranks fourth in the nation. The 2016 AVCA First Team All-American also leads the team with 34 total blocks (five solo, 29 assisted; 1.31 per set). Senior setter Abby Detering leads has totaled a team-high seven service aces (0.27 per set) and is second on the squad with 24 total blocks (two solo, 22 assisted; 0.92 per set). Senior right side hitter Heidi Thelen ranks third on the team with 23 total blocks (two solo, 20 assisted; 0.96 per set). The Nittany Lions have been employing two setters this year. Redshirt junior setter Bryanna Weiskircher leads Penn State with 180 assists (6.92 per set) while Detering is second on the team with 145 assists (5.58 per set). Sophomore defensive specialist Kendall White has compiled a team-high 105 digs (4.04 per set).
"They're an outstanding program," said Webb of facing Penn State. "They're one of the best programs in the history of our sport. It's going to be a tremendous opportunity and honor for us to go compete against them."
Ohio last faced a team ranked in the top 10 on Sept. 1, 2015, and came away with a 3-1 upset victory over then-No. 10-ranked Kentucky in Lexington. Penn State will be the highest ranked team Ohio has taken on since suffering a 3-1 loss to then-No. 7-ranked Illinois in the Flyer Classic in Dayton, Ohio. The Bobcats last faced a No. 2-ranked team on Sept. 2, 2007, in a 3-0 sweep at the hands of Stanford at the Diet Coke Classic in Minneapolis.
"It's been quite some time since we've played a top-three team, and those are huge opportunities," said Webb. "Not just to go out and play in the moment, but to truly learn. What does it look like to play at that level? What does it look like with regards to intensity, with regards to communication, with regards to effort at all times? The challenge right now is that we don't know what we don't know. We don't understand -- and we're trying to learn -- but we don't understand the level of work that it takes. That's true in many, many phases of what we're trying to do right now. Some of the best ways to learn is by seeing someone else put it in action and not just, 'OK, they all jump really high and they all high really hard.' What are the little things? What are the nuance things that are happening over there that our team can learn from. It's a huge opportunity. We're definitely looking forward to that level of play on the other side. We're looking forward to the crowd. As an athlete, it should be easy to get up and get excited to play in that environment. We're all looking forward to that."
Ohio closes out its 2017 non-conference slate at the Penn State Classic. The Bobcats open 2017 Mid-American Conference play next weekend, visiting a pair of East Division rivals. Ohio takes on Buffalo next Friday (Sept. 22) in a 6 p.m. ET contest in Amherst, N.Y., then visits Akron on Saturday (Sept. 23) in a 5 p.m. ET matchup.