In the wake of the Portland Pilot volleyball’s historic season of fall 2018, the team is back battling on The Bluff with their eyes set on the future while still taking lessons from the past. In his second year as head coach, Jeff Baxter directs focus away from the past and onto the coming 2019 season.
The consensus between the senior leaders and Baxter is that while last season was successful, it shouldn’t be the gold standard. The 12-match winning streak in the preseason made the year memorable, but the team petered out and lost some smoke rolling into the West Coast Conference matches.
This year is a fresh start, with a 3-2 win from an exhibition game against Seattle University already under the squad’s belt.
“We have great talent and amazing raw skill and connection on the court, but at the same time we have so many things we need to work on,” senior defensive specialist Emma Scanlan said. “Last year, we swept Seattle U and this season we dropped two sets, so we got a reality check in a way that we want to improve from this baseline.”
For the team, exhibition games are especially beneficial because the directive isn’t necessarily just to win, it’s to learn a lot about themselves at the same exact time. Baxter played everyone against Seattle U, switching up the starting lineups for each match so that everyone was a part of the wins and the losses.
The WCC’s preseason ranking placed Portland at sixth, but rankings couldn’t be further from the Pilots’ minds.
“We haven’t even really started talking about WCC. All of our focus has been on our team and what were doing,” said freshman libero Grace Zilbert. “Preseason has been about individually getting better and now I think we’re working on getting better as a unit which comes in both volleyball and off the court.”
Last year’s NCAA tournament saw five WCC teams compete, with Brigham Young University falling in the Final Four to the National Champions, Stanford University. This season, BYU is ranked ninth in the preseason AVCA Coaches Poll and first in the WCC.
University of San Diego, second in the WCC, is ranked 21st nationally. Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount, ranked third and fourth in the WCC, received votes but weren’t ranked nationally. Despite having heavy hitters in the conference, the Pilots aren’t intimidated.
“Win or lose, playing teams that are arguably better than you are always the most fun when you just rise to their level because they get you there,” Scanlan said. “I love the underdog mentality of this team — we’ve been counted out of our conference multiple times and I think we’ve hung in there all these years.”
These challenges the Pilots will face in preseason and conference play only help them improve their skill and cohesiveness.
“Team growth has to be fed by the challenges that are presented to us, so I really embrace and look forward to them,” Baxter said. “I don’t know what they are going to be this year, but I look forward to how they help the team become better.”
Last year, the Pilots lost some key players. The team graduated last year’s leader with 386 kills, outside hitter Reghan Pukis, and one of the leaders in the back row with 229 digs, Lauren Naatz. The team also lost their starting setter, Cali Thompson, and another kill leader, Izzy Guzik, both of whom transferred out, Thompson to UCLA and Guzik to University of Mississippi.
This year, Baxter introduces five new players, two transfers and three freshmen, who have already dialed in to the culture of the team. The team returns their strong middle blockers, seniors Katie Barker and Hoeft, both are expected to carry some offensive weight this season. Last season, Barker and Hoeft were two of five kill leaders, with 281 and 321 kills, respectively.
The junior class returns Liz Reich, a versatile player who has done time as a middle blocker, opposite hitter and now as an outside hitter. Another of the five kill leaders from last season, Reich recorded 219 kills in 2018. Baxter hopes to use Reich more this year on the left side of the offense. The junior libero, Carey Williams, also returns as the team’s dig leader from last season, clocking in 534 digs last season.
“The biggest thing is taking the lessons that we learned from last season and being proud of it, but understanding that that was last year, and there’s a blank canvas ahead of us and we get to paint whatever picture we want,” Baxter said. “The stories we tell ourselves dictate our future, so if we tell ourselves ‘last year was it,’ I don’t like that picture very much.”
The team’s first preseason match is Friday, Aug. 30 at 11 a.m. against California State University Northridge in a tournament at the Weber State Wildcat Invitational in Ogden, Utah.
Morgan Wahler is a sports reporter for The Beacon. She can be reached at email@example.com.