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How AU volleyball plans to make it back to the NCAA tournament

Team returns many key players, looks to win fourth consecutive Patriot League championship

How AU volleyball plans to make it back to the NCAA tournament

The AU volleyball team enters the 2017 season with an experienced roster looking to deliver the program's 15th Patriot League championship.

Heading into the 2017 volleyball season, AU returns the same core of players which delivered a Patriot League championship last fall and an appearance in the NCAA tournament that ended with a loss to Michigan in the first round. The team only graduates one senior, Julita Kurdziuk, and with the team a year older and more experienced, the Eagles hope to reach greater heights in 2017. Here are four things to watch heading into the season.

1. The emergence of new leaders

The 2016 season was clouded with uncertainty for the AU volleyball team. The team graduated five decorated seniors, leaving gaps throughout their lineup. To compound the difficulties that faced the Eagles in 2016, Hoakelei Dawson, the 2015 Patriot League Libero of the Year, and starting middle blocker Erin Schwarz, two of AU’s most experienced players, missed all of 2016 due to injuries.

The primary question for head coach Barry Goldberg and his staff was who would emerge as leaders on a young roster. Goldberg identified rising senior Loren McKenzie and rising juniors Kennedy Etheridge and Aleksandra Kazala as players who filled the leadership void in an interview with The Eagle. Their leadership, Goldberg said, integrated the younger members of roster and contributed greatly to the team’s success in 2016.

Injuries forced several freshmen into larger roles for the team, and they thrived in 2016. Libero Kristan Largey, Shannon Webb and Patriot League Rookie of the Year Vela McBride played the majority of the season for the Eagles and their exposure means the 2017 team has plenty of experience despite its youth.

“Our hope is to take another step and get in the NCAA tournament and see if we can’t be really competitive with the best teams in the country and start advancing in the tournament,” Goldberg said. “Once your program has set that kind of standard, that’s always your hope.”

2. Physicality will be a key in 2017

Goldberg views his team’s physicality as its strong suit heading into the 2017 season. The team has height at every position on the court, having multiple players above 6-0 at every position outside of libero. Goldberg said the younger players are getting more physical in their play each season. The team’s physicality influences their ability to control the ball and impose their game plan on an opponent.

“I think our hitting and our blocking is a big part of our physicality,” Goldberg said. “I think that’s going to be our strength, and it has been in our league. The question is how high can that go when we get into the NCAA Tournament.”

While he feels the 2017 AU team will be a physical one, Goldberg said he hopes his team’s fluidity and movement improves during the offseason. Several of the team’s injuries during 2016 stemmed from movement potential issues and Goldberg hopes the unit can improve its agility. Improved agility and mobility will permit AU to utilize a faster speed of play, which Goldberg said has been key to the Eagles’ recent Patriot League success.

“[Movement] will be the issue. If you look at some of best teams in the country, they’re physical, they’ve got big players but they have excellent movement with their play,” Goldberg said. “For us, we’re going see what kind of speed we can get to.”

3. The return of injured players bring depth, competition in 2017

For large portions of 2016, Goldberg had only seven healthy players able to play. Due to the limited roster, underclassmen were thrust into large roles for the team and gained valuable collegiate experience.

In 2017, the return of Dawson and Schwarz will create competition at both the libero and middle blocker position. Despite Dawson’s pedigree as the league’s best libero in 2015, Goldberg said Largay’s development in her passing and service return allowed AU to have the success they did in 2016.

Likewise, Goldberg said Schwarz was performing at an all-conference level before her injury midway through her sophomore season. However, in Schwarz’s absence, McKenzie established herself as a First-Team Patriot League performer and McBride distinguished herself as the league’s top freshman.

“There are certainly things to contemplate in terms of who’s going to win roles,” Goldberg said. “We’re excited for the opportunity to get to see players compete.”

Goldberg said he and his staff do not have the luxury of having the whole team in D.C. for the summer. Instead, players have been given offseason programs to work through on their own before the team reconvenes two weeks before the beginning of the fall semester. Goldberg said those two weeks are the most intense days of practice, yet the most difficult to monitor.

“We don’t want to go too hard, it’s a delicate time,” Goldberg said. “You’re trying to get your team ready for the first game so you’re playing pretty hard because you’re excited to play. It’s an important time and we’ll have to hope that we can stay fairly healthy.”

4. Non-conference schedule will provide early tests

After their two week preseason, the Eagles will begin their schedule Aug 25 against Santa Clara University in Bender Arena. It is the first of four weekends AU will play three games in the span of 24 hours. The team’s nonconference schedule also includes several ranked opponents and members of Power 5 conferences. AU will face five teams this season who reached the NCAA tournament in 2016: Howard, Princeton, Michigan State, Florida and Washington State.

“You have to play them, because you have to see what your team can do. The hope is to knock off a couple of those teams and know that we’re ready for the NCAA tournament,” Goldberg said. “That’ll give us a parameter of how high we may be able to finish [this season].”

Despite the confidence nonconference wins against opponents like Florida or Michigan State would give them, Goldberg said the priority for his team is still the Patriot League and, ultimately, progression in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re continuing to knock on the door. Every few years, [we progress] a little bit further,” Goldberg said. “What year this one will be, we don’t know. Hopefully we’ll get a little bit further [than last year]. It will take a good contribution from all the returning players and the few new ones that are coming in.”

vsalandro@theeagleonline.com


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