Volleyball battles through big week
Noah Hilton | Sports Editor | The USD Vista
Offense leading team as conference play opens under national spotlight against top opponents
A half hour before the match, it was difficult to tell that two of the top volleyball programs on the west coast were about to face off. As a whole, the atmosphere bore a striking resemblance to every other game the Toreros have hosted this season.
Players from both the University of San Diego and Brigham Young University warmed up on the floor. Media members prepared their laptops for notes to be taken and tweets to be sent over the course of the game. Fans from both schools filed through the double doors of the Jenny Craig Pavilion and found their seats.
When the first serve crossed the net and the entire gymnasium exploded in sound and the strain of senses, though, it was clear that this was not just another conference tilt.
It was, in fact, the back end of a two-game stretch that may be the 17th-ranked Toreros’ most important of the season. Last Tuesday, the team faced off against West Coast Conference title threat Loyola Marymount in a game televised nationally on ESPNU. Proving to be unaffected by the spotlight, the Toreros swept the Lions 3-0 behind 13 kills from senior opposite hitter Jayden Kennedy and a career high 17 digs from senior libero Lizzy Tardieu.
After the victory, senior setter Kristen Gengenbacher told ESPN how impressed she was by her team’s performance.
“We knew that there were going to be a lot of one-on-one blocks, given that LMU has such a fast offense,” Gengenbacher said. “I think we did a good job of adjusting, especially in the third set. Our middle back and our right back picked up their defense a lot, and we were able to come out with a win.”
Unfortunately, Saturday’s showdown with No. 9 BYU did not yield as promising of a result.
Playing in front of an electric crowd that made their voices heard all afternoon, the Toreros battled through two tough sets to open the match, falling in the opener 25-23 before knotting things up with a 25-23 set win of their own.
Junior middle back Kaity Edwards said the intensity of the match was something the Toreros had to be wary of after grinding through the first two sets.
“One thing BYU does really well is that they have really good defense and a really solid block, so our game plan was to just go at the block and just keep working hard on defense,” Edwards said. “We just had to keep fighting and stay patient.”
Junior outside hitter Lauren Fuller agreed, emphasizing the important role emotion can play in a match with such high stakes.
“I think, in important matches like this, [the emotion] really comes out, because I know how important it is for us to try to get a win,” Fuller said. “Adding a little more energy and frustration and really putting it all out there pushes all of us to work harder and try to get each and every point.”
Unfortunately, it seemed the team had little left in the tank after that, as the Cougars stormed to victories in the next two sets, 25-20 and 25-18, to claim the match and push their record on the season to an impressive 15-1.
The Toreros, meanwhile, watched their record fall to 10-4 after the tough loss despite having four players record double-digit kills in Kennedy, Fuller, junior middle back Addie Picha, and first-year outside hitter Roxie Wiblin.
Despite the disappointing result, the players were vocal about their appreciation for the team’s efforts against a program that has claimed four of the last five West Coast Conference crowns.
“I’m really proud of how the team fought today, because BYU has always had such a strong program, and they come out swinging even when they’re not in their home gym,” Fuller said. “Our passing was fantastic today. It really kept us in the match, and allowed us to run an offense, especially with our middles playing as well as they did.”
Edwards agreed with Fuller’s assessment of the team’s performance against the Cougars.
“They’re a great team, and there’s a reason that they’re No. 9 in the country,” Edwards said. “We took them to four [sets], which is great. We came up a little short in the end, but we had some hard fights and I’m really proud of our team.”
The Toreros also commented on their appreciation for the fans in attendance, a crowd that was deafening at times in support of the hometeam.
“It is so nice having a ton of people there,” Fuller said. “That really makes a difference, especially in our home gym. It’s great seeing familiar faces here and seeing our peers and being able to show them what we’re made of and why we are ranked No. 17 in the nation.”
After perhaps the biggest week of the season, the Toreros will hit the road and head to the Bay Area to face Pacific tonight and St. Mary’s on Saturday. With an eye toward those upcoming matches, Fuller appeared focused on shoring up the Toreros’ shortcomings as they continue to progress through conference play.
“I definitely think defense is a key right now,” Fuller said. “Even though it wasn’t where we needed it to be tonight, we have people who can really step in and play great defense. If we can get that together, we’re not going to be able to be stopped, because our offense has really been clicking with the setter and we’ve really been able to run our offense through [Kristen] lately.”
While emerging from the team’s high-profile week on the court with an undefeated conference record still intact would have been the ideal scenario, there seems to be little doubt the team remains focused on bigger stages ahead. After an upset loss last year that ended their 2016 campaign early in the postseason tournament, the Toreros appear ready to prove they belong under even the brightest of lights.
This past week may have only been the beginning.