Down but not out, volleyball will rise again

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SLU women’s volleyball has slipped to a poor 1-6 record to start the Fall 2016 season. In some years, this may have set off alarms, especially following a strong Fall 2015 season that saw the team finish 22-10 and reach the Atlantic 10 Conference championship match. However, SLU’s schedule to start the season has been difficult, including three teams in last year’s top 50 volleyball programs: Arkansas State, Michigan and Western Kentucky. The Billikens, despite their tough start, will look to lick their wounds in their remaining pre-conference games before attempting to top the A-10 once conference play starts.

SLU was swept out of their first tournament of the season, the Michigan Challenge, located in Ann Arbor, Mich. Their first loss came against Michigan itself, a 3-0 loss that the Billikens never got into. SLU also fell in three sets to Northern Iowa, although the first set was only lost by a relatively close 5 points. Finally, against Miami of Ohio, SLU managed to challenge in all five sets, even winning the fourth set in a back-and-forth affair, 28-26. This forced a fifth set, in which Miami prevailed by a score of 15-11.

SLU did manage to rebound when they visited Normal, Ill., to take on Illinois State in what was by far the strongest Billikens performance this season. The Billikens swept their opponents, as senior outside hitter Danielle Rygelski led the way with 26 kills. Meanwhile, junior libero Mackenzie Long had 9 digs, senior setter Ashley Gagen had 8 digs to go along with a match-best 32 assists, and junior middle blocker Josie Gandall tallied 7 digs. Rygelski and junior middle blocker Lauren Leverenz also tallied 3 block assists each.

SLU then could not build on their sweep of Illinois State, despite returning home to Chaifetz Arena for the Marcia E. Hamilton Classic. The Billikens lost 3-1 against Arkansas State, although SLU did perform well in the second set, beating Arkansas State 25-15. SLU was then swept against No. 19 Western Kentucky, one of the strongest teams that SLU will face this year. The Billikens could not manage more than 13 points in any single set in that match. Finally, SLU was beaten by eventual tournament winners Cal Poly, 3-1, to bring their overall record down to 1-6.

Rygelski has been a standout performer for the Billikens so far this season. Against Northern Iowa, she registered an astounding 33 kills and followed that up with a 29-kill match against Illinois State. She has been SLU’s leading attacker this season and if she continues at this pace should lead SLU well into the A-10 postseason.

SLU’s upcoming matches may prove to be just as difficult as the seven that have already gone by. Kentucky, Marquette and Virginia are all on the slate for Sept. 9 and 10, and Kentucky and Marquette were both Top 50 programs last year. While SLU may currently be struggling against a host of topnotch teams, the preparation may serve them well in the future. SLU will begin Atlantic 10 play on Sept. 23 against George Mason, and the Billikens will use lessons from these defeats to do well in the conference.

Gagen is one of those who believes that the team will be stronger by the end of this season because of the tough opposition that they are currently paired against. “While our wins and losses record may not look great right now, it does not reflect how well we’ve been playing and how much we’ve improved. Our tough schedule will better prepare us for our conference games, which are right around the corner,” she said.