By Mike Ashcraft
ATHENS, Ohio -- To an outsider, the transition might look daunting.
Adjusting to college life can be a challenging task in and of itself for a freshman. Now, add starting at setter for a perennial NCAA Division I Championship qualifying volleyball program. Oh, and you're also adjusting to life in not only a brand new city or state, but a brand new country.
That's life for Ohio freshman setter Vera Giacomazzi (San Vendemiano, Italy).
If those new experiences are intimidating, Giacomazzi is certainly not letting it show. Since she stepped on the Athens campus, she has carried herself with a confident smile and a calm demeanor.
Although she is a rookie when it comes to collegiate volleyball, Giacomazzi came to the Bobcats as a very experienced and accomplished player. She helped guide her club squads in Italy to four provincial championships while serving as a team captain. After leading Volley Mareno to a sixth-place finish at the regional championship in 2014-15, she helped her 2015-16 A.P.C. Chions team to first-place regional and provincial finishes and an 18th-place finish at the national finals. She garnered best setter recognition at several tournaments throughout her career in Italy.
"She's been playing volleyball for 13 years," said fourth-year head coach Deane Webb of Giacomazzi. "With that, there's just an unbelievable amount of knowledge, just understanding the nuances of the game, understanding what to do in different situations. She still has plenty of things to improve. She doesn't like when we get in the video room and we start talking about blocking. That's an area that she has to make some strides. But, a sense of calm that she brings and a sense of understanding, that certainly helps when you go through challenging situations."
Through 14 matches in 2017, Giacomazzi leads Ohio with 496 assists (9.73 per set), which is good for 37th-most in the nation. She has tallied 40 or more assists six times, 50 or more assists twice and 60 or more assists once. She has also recorded 94 digs (1.84 per set), 14 kills (0.27 per set), 18 total blocks (18 assisted; 0.35 per set) and six service aces (0.12 per set).
Giacomazzi got her Ohio career started by earning tournament most valuable player honors at the Courtyard By Marriott Invitational on the opening weekend of the 2017 season (Aug. 25-26) in Birmingham, Ala. She distributed 123 assists (11.18 per set) over three matches. She also logged 26 digs (2.36 per set) to rank fifth on the squad, four kills, two service aces and six assisted blocks (0.55 per set).
"I like to open the court," said Giacomazzi of her game. "I love to be not readable. I love to spread the game. Hopefully, I have a lot of great players on the court because that makes me feel comfortable with that. If you don't have great players with you, it's difficult to do that. But, they know that I'm going to do that, so they're always ready for my ball. It's really fun to do that."
Giacomazzi's job has been made more challenging with the loss of three weapons to injury in non-conference play -- senior outside hitter Jaime Kosiorek (Chagrin Falls, Ohio), redshirt junior middle blocker Katie Nelson (Regina, Saskatchewan) and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Carley Remmers (Filley, Neb.). The losses of those players have forced Webb to juggle his lineup and utilize players at positions they might not have much experience at.
"She is at her best when she is orchestrating the offense," said Webb. "When she has more people in their normal positions being comfortable doing that, then she gets to move them around and kind of be a conductor in that moment. I think she will not only be more better in that moment, she will also enjoy her experience more as well."
Giacomazzi acknowledged the obstacles associated with losing the caliber of players that Ohio has this season but was quick to point out the adversity has brought the group of young Bobcats together.
"We are always working hard, but I think we've learned to be a real team," said Giacomazzi. "We lost some great players -- two captains -- which means that we need to be more united. We are, but we have to be a little more now that we lost them."
Ohio (6-8) has suffered five-straight losses but gets a shot at a fresh slate this weekend when it opens Mid-American Conference action on the road. The Bobcats visit a pair of MAC East Division rivals, battling Buffalo (7-4) on Friday (Sept. 22) at 6 p.m. ET at Alumni Arena and then taking on Akron on Saturday (Sept. 23) at 5 p.m. ET at James A. Rhodes Arena. A live video stream of the match at Buffalo will be available.
"There is every year, just an excitement when you get ready to play in the MAC," said Webb. "It's a good conference with a lot of good teams. It's been an interesting non-conference portion of the year. Not just for our team, but a number of MAC teams. There are a couple teams that have put themselves at the top of the conference, but there are a number of teams that are still really figuring things out. A number of teams have dealt with more injuries this year than normal, have had some different struggles that they've faced. I would say as a conference it's probably more open from three to 12 than it's been in recent history. I believe that our team is excited going into MAC play, but I believe that a number of other teams are just excited to see where we really stack up against our peers in our own conference."
Ohio has dominated the all-time series with Buffalo, holding a 37-2 (.949) lead. The Bobcats have taken 12-straight matches from the Bulls. Ohio's last trip to Alumni Arena saw the Bobcats tally seven service aces en route to a 3-1 (21-25, 25-21, 25-14, 25-18) victory over Buffalo on Oct. 28, 2016. Led by third-year head coach Blair Brown Lipsitz, the Bulls were picked to finish fourth in the MAC East Division in the conference's preseason poll. Buffalo enters league play having won seven of 11 matches. The Bulls currently rank 38th in the nation with 1.64 service aces per set (72 service aces, second in the MAC, 58th in the country). Sophomore outside hitter Polina Prokudina leads Buffalo with 180 kills (4.09 kills per set; second in the MAC) and has also tallied 11 service aces (0.25 per set), 13 total blocks (13 assisted; 0.30 per set) and 104 digs (2.36 per set). She is the reigning MAC East Division Offensive Player of the Week and has earned honors twice in the last three weeks. Freshman outside hitter Andrea Mitrovic ranks second on the team in both kills (145, 3.30 per set) and service aces (15; 0.34 per set). Junior libero/defensive specialist Larra Bickelhaupt leads the Bulls with 16 service aces (0.36 per set) and has also compiled a team-high 150 digs (3.41 per set). Sophomore setter Scout McLerran has dished out a team-high 454 assists (10.32 assists, third in the MAC), which ranks second in the league. Junior middle blocker/right side hitter Megan Wernette is Buffalo's top blocker with 32 total (five solo, 27 assisted; 0.73 per set). She ranks fifth in the conference with a .337 hitting percentage (75 kills-20 errors-163 total attacks). The Bobcats and the Bulls will meet again on Oct. 28 at the Convocation Center in Athens.
The Bobcats lead the all-time series with the Zips, 34-23 (.596), and Ohio has won 13-straight against Akron. Ohio earned a 3-1 (18-25, 25-20, 25-17, 25-22) triumph over Akron on Oct. 29, 2016, in the last meeting between the programs at the JAR. Tom Hanna is in his third year as the head coach of the Zips, who were picked to finish sixth in the MAC East Division in the league's preseason poll. Junior left side hitter Kayla Gwozdz leads Akron with 164 kills (3.73 per set, fourth in the MAC), which is good for fourth in the conference. Gwozdz, freshman setter Emily Weigand and junior defensive specialist Abbey Pawlak are all tied for the team lead with 13 service aces (0.30 per set). Weigand leads the Zips with 430 assists (9.77 per set, fifth in the MAC), which ranks fifth in the conference. Redshirt senior middle blocker Jessica Kloehn has totaled a team-high 41 total blocks (five solo, 36 assisted; 0.93 per set, fifth in the MAC). Freshman defensive specialist Taylor Sharrits is Akron's top passer with 175 digs (3.98 per set). The Bobcats and Zips will meet again on Oct. 27 at the Convo. Akron is set to open conference play against MAC East Division archrival Kent State on Friday at the JAR.
Ohio will return home after three-straight weekends on the road next weekend. The Bobcats will play host to MAC East Division archrival Miami next Friday (Sept. 29), then welcome East Division rival Bowling Green on Saturday (Sept. 30). Both matches will be streamed live on ESPN3.