Newcomers fueling impressive 2016 for Pilots

By Molly McSweyn | November 21, 2016 1:55pm
by Kayli Gribi / The Beacon

Two years ago, the Pilots volleyball team lost every single game of their season. The losing reputation was heavy to hold, both on the shoulders of the players and the entire school. The Pilots were that team: the team every other conference volleyball athlete wanted to play so they could ensure an easy victory.

But, something has changed. This season, the team beat the No. 7 San Diego Toreros — the highest ranked team they have ever defeated — and earned the program’s first win over BYU.

Since head coach Brent Crouch joined the team two seasons ago, the program has turned around.

During the 2015 season, Crouch coached the Pilots to their first winning season since 1989. The team began to break records left and right. Suddenly, winning became as natural as losing had once been.

The 2016 season has been no different. The Pilots are 17-12 overall and 10-7 in conference. Now they are tied for third in conference with Gonzaga.

“I think you can see the progress we have made even within the season,” sophomore outside hitter Reghan Pukis said. “I think from game one down at Oregon State to where we are now we just look like a totally different team.”

Crouch has impacted the program beyond measure. But, the team’s success can also be linked to two recent additions to the program.

Transfer Pukis and freshman setter Cali Thompson have been a part of the team's transformation this season. Pukis, who transferred after her freshman season at UNLV, plays an extremely important role as an outside hitter for the team.

Although she has been inconsistent during the season, when she is on, she is on fire. She is a point scorer, racking up the scoreboard when her team needs it the most. Pukis led the Pilots with 12 kills in their upset victory over San Diego.

“She is just a great volleyball player and she is a great hitter,” senior setter Djurdjina Milovic said. “Whenever something is going crazy and whenever we need someone to score points she is always there to do it."

Pukis transferred to UP to be closer to her family but also to get back to her love of the game. At UNLV there were internal struggles within the program, a situation that she said distracted from her identity as a volleyball player.

But making her way to the Bluff was not easy. After months of emails, phone calls and campus visits, Pukis finally decided to attend UP. The transition did not end there.

“When you transfer you expect people to be straight up with you because you kind of already messed up once and you don't really get another shot at this and this has to be the fit that's going to work,” Pukis said. “So, from the get go, [Crouch] was very honest with me about what to expect and that I was going to have to work my way into it and that there was no spot waiting for me or anything like that.”

Pukis worked hard to get where she is today. Crouch points to her competitive nature and eagerness to improve as indicators of her success on the court. She is a vital member of the Pilots 2016 team, showing up big in moments where she is truly needed.

The team can also point their success to newcomer Cali Thompson, who graduated high school a semester early to start her career as a Pilot.

“Cali is very competitive,” Crouch said. “She is a perfectionist with trying to get better at her skills and is already setting at a high level.”

Although she is still young, Thompson has become a vital part of the team and their progress thus far.

“We have had a lot of games where we have come back from losing two sets and winning in five,” Thompson said. “It is just a really good bonding experience to know we can come together and persevere in any situation."

Even though the coaching staff has not changed much about the team’s formation, Pukis and Thompson have greatly aided in the Pilot’s victorious season.

The team has a newfound hunger for victory. They are buying into a new philosophy and trying to create a name for UP volleyball.

The Pilots are not content with losing anymore; instead, they want to create a legacy.

"It is great to see how things have changed over the course of four years honestly,” Milovic said. “I was here when we had a completely different coaching staff, different players, everything was basically different. We had an 0-27 record my first year and to come up to this point where we are beating some great teams like BYU and Pepperdine, it is just amazing."

With new players and a newfound hunger for victory, the Pilots hope to not only win as many games as possible, but to create a lasting program of successful UP volleyball.

The Pilots host senior night Monday at 5 p.m. against Gonzaga in the Chiles Center. A win will secure the team third place in conference.