It’s the fourth set against the Utah Aggies and the score is tied. The other team screams, barks and yips at the Pilots and Kellie Hughes back at the service line. The referee whistles and Hughes nails her second service ace in a row. The other team is silent and the Pilots cheer as they take the lead, then the set, then the match.
Volleyball’s first weekend back welcomed Washington State University Cougars, University of Idaho Vandals and Utah State Aggies to the Chiles Center for the North Portland Marriott Invitational. The home team finished the tournament 2-1, beating the Vandals and Aggies and falling to the Cougars.
The New Kids on The Bluff
The team’s newest additions shined this weekend, holding a strong back line and securing the net.
“We have a lot of players that are competitive in a lot of positions right now,” said assistant coach Dylan Hamilton. “We have a lot of new guys who can get in the mix and are able to fill in and we feel pretty comfortable trying some new things with them.”
Freshman defensive specialist Grace Zilbert played in every match, making 31 digs total.
Sophomore hitter Claire Forrest was a strong new force in the front row. The transfer from Seton Hall recorded seven blocks and 17 kills this weekend.
Freshman outside hitter Jayde Harris came in for the team to make some critical swings at the Cougars and the Aggies. Against WSU, she came in for a crucial side-out kill that gave the team momentum. Against Utah State, the freshman was smart in her placement, mixing up hard swings with carefully placed tips. Harris recorded 10 kills this weekend.
Oldies but Goodies
Portland veterans Shayla Hoeft and Katie Barker, both senior middle blockers, made major contributions to the team’s two wins. Hoeft had 44 kills and eight blocks and Barker had 15 kills and nine blocks. Hoeft was a key part of the Pilot’s offense, incorporating the “slide” hit as often as they could and made the All-Tournament Team.
Junior Carey Williams picked up right where she left off last season leading the back line as the libero.
“Our backrow was really aggressive both in serve receive and defense,” setter Kellie Hughes said. “They’re just willing to throw their bodies around for us.”
Hughes made 59 digs and was central to the team’s serve-receive passing and was also named to the All-Tournament Team.
This season, junior outside hitter Liz Reich stepped up for the team and took on a new position, moving from the right side to the left after hitting from the middle during her freshman season. Since her time with Baxter, Reich’s versatility makes her able to play where the team needs her. Her impact was notable, contributing 33 kills and three blocks.
“Liz knew after last season that she wanted to take more swings and we wanted to give them to her,” Hamilton said. “She’s physical so putting her on the left was a logical move.”
Kassidy Naone, junior outside hitter, became a “full time” player by staying on the court for all six rotations instead of just swinging in the front three. She added 11 kills to the scoreboard this weekend.
Junior Hughes stepped into the starting setter role, filling the shoes of recent transfer Cali Thompson. Hughes made 107 assists this weekend on the offensive end; defensively, she made 11 digs.
“She put in most of the work in the spring way ahead of time,” Hamilton said of the setter. “She was in the gym every morning setting hundreds of volleyballs knowing she had to get good at setting and she did that.”
With any team rebuilding in the preseason, they are still working on establishing a rhythm at Chiles. The block is hot with Hughes in the back row, but in other rotations the team lacks height defending the opposing outside hitter with an undersized setter in the front.
“I think our defense does really good around it (the short block), they’re really scrappy and they read really well,” Hoeft said. “I think they’ve gotten so much better just being stopped and ready to dig off the block touches.”
Missed connections and forced hitting errors between Hughes and the hitters gave 73 net points to opponents this weekend.
The teams had runs of dominance on the court, but would find themselves playing sloppy in out of system plays, giving opponents the upper hand.
“In the good times it’s pretty easy to get pumped and the times I saw us come together most was when we struggled the most,” Hughes said. “When we’re down, I think that’s when we come together the most in the middle.”
Strength from the service line pressured opponents to error and reset the Pilots. While the weekend only yielded 25 aces, the pressure from the service line made it harder for opponents to set up their offense.
“Chemistry is the best I’ve ever had on a team and we really look to each other for help when things get rough,” Hoeft said. “We just vibe very well and we’re all on the same page.”
The Pilots take on the Grambling State Tigers next on Friday, Sept. 13 at 10 a.m. at the Chiles Center.
Morgan Wahler is a sports reporter at The Beacon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.