By: Malika Andrews |
I wouldn’t classify myself as an optimist. I would say I am a skeptical realist. Until the Golden State Warriors went from winning 51 games to going 67-15 in the regular season and claiming the NBA title last season, I wasn’t sold on Cinderella stories. It’s too early to call head coach Brent Crouch the Steve Kerr of NCAA Volleyball, but he is calling upon the same principles.
It is no secret that on the University of Portland campus, the volleyball team isn’t known for their wins. In the 2013 season, the Pilots walked away without a single win and a reputation for losing.
After sweeping UC Riverside in the Portland Classic last weekend, the Pilots stand at 5-1 on the season. This is the best start they have had since 1984. At the time, Portland was a part of the NAIA.
The victory over UCR, which completed a sweep of the tournament, was the Pilot’s third sweep of the season and extended Portland’s winning streak to five. The last time UP won five matches consecutively was in 2004 when they beat Portland State, Cal Poly, UC Davis, Utah Valley State and Washington State.
The 2013 season set change into motion. Crouch replaced Joe Houck after his five-year tenure on The Bluff. Last year, the Pilots got a taste of winning. This year, they play with confidence.
While a few supporting roles have been switched around, this change isn’t all that miraculous. Six players from the 2013 squad are on the roster today. Most of the same key players are making an impact on the court, the difference is where that impact manifests. The hitters are passing, and well. The 5’8” setter is blocking. Where in the past serve receive was a dreaded weak spot, this season it is a strength.
The Pilots return senior outside hitter Emily Liger, who led the team with 394 kills and 452 points last year. This year, Liger averages 4.07 points on 2.48 kills per set, but this is expected. What is unexpected is Liger’s presence on defense. She has averaged 3.05 digs per set this season. To put this into perspective, Portland libero, Monica Gajda averages 4.71 digs per set.
Djurdjina Milovic, Portland’s setter, has been performing exceptionally well. Appearing in every set thus far, Milovic averages 11.5 assists per set and has recorded between 36 and 48 assists per match.
Brittney Markwith has been an unstoppable force in the middle recording 1.24 blocks per set which puts her at No. 83 in the NCAA. The best blocker in the NCAA today records an average 2.5 blocks per set.
Sophomore Hannah Troutman is the only new face in the starting lineup. If you haven’t heard it yet, hear me now when I say: she can hit the ball. Troutman is one of those players that when she begins her attack, you can expect a smackdown. Her average 4 kills per set has earned her No. 63 in the NCAA in kills per set. Still, hitting is something Troutman will have to readjust to after playing back row for Oregon State last year. And while she did play front row in high school, playing in the NCAA is a whole different animal. Once Troutman learns to control her swing a bit more and not let her own frustrations get in the way, she will be unstoppable.
It’s not that Portland is hitting that much harder than their opponents. But they are hitting smart. Instead of slamming down cannons on every attack, they strategically place their shots, realizing there is a time and a place to swing hard. Liger epitomizes Crouch’s philosophy of hitting smart.
In the preseason WCC poll, the Pilots were ranked No. 10. Don’t get me wrong, I cannot foresee the Pilots beating BYU this year, whose preseason schedule included wins over nationally ranked teams, but I do think Portland will be making a climb in the poll. Last season, Santa Clara held the No. 9 seed in the coach’s poll. This year, they hold the second spot.
Portland’s biggest hurdle in this climb will be injury. There is finally some wind in the Pilots’ sails. Fans may have noticed Makayla Lindburg has been sidelined for every match but one this season. Students may have noticed Katie Sullivan, who has been vital to the Pilots at the net this season, now sports a knee walker and a boot on her right leg.
This is a year of rebuild and transition. I do not mean transition the way that coaches and players sometimes use it as a synonym for “we are performing poorly.” I mean that this year is a year for solidifying the basics before something spectacular can happen. Troutman will calm her nerves. Lindburg will get healthy. Sullivan will ditch the boot. Crouch has ingrained the message “repeated good contacts leads to good outcomes” into the team’s brain.
This year is the year of repeated good contact.
Next year is the year of repeated good outcome.
Malika Andrews is the sports editor for The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @malika_andrews.