Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
From 2010 through the 2013, the Duquesne women’s volleyball program recorded at least 19 wins in each of those four seasons.
That four-year stretch also included the best year in the history of the program, 2013, when the Dukes won both the Atlantic 10 regular season and tournament championships. In the two years since, the Red & Blue have made the A-10 postseason in both years but have failed to win a single tournament match.
“Throughout spring season and summer workouts, our team put in a ton of hard work,” junior outside hitter Molly Davet said. “Since we weren’t very successful last season, all of us knew that something had to change. Lifts became a lot more difficult, and our mentality in the gym became much more competitive.”
The Dukes are looking to bounce back from a disappointing 14-16 season, which concluded with a 3-2 loss to Rhode Island in the A-10 quarterfinals. Talking to Davet, it seems evident the team has a new identity this season and is focused on intensity.
“The team this year is much more competitive and willing to do anything to win,” Davet said. “Also, our bench is much deeper this year, which allows practices to be very intense. A lot of new faces in the gym helped us to achieve a new and determined mindset.”
Head coach Steve Opperman shared a similar thought process on how to stop this trend of mediocrity and turn the program back into a powerhouse.
“It’s about taking that next step to really wanting to crush your opponents,” Opperman said. “I think it’s about the mental aspect and getting everyone to buy in.”
When the A-10 preseason polls were released, Duquesne was spotted at No. 5. However, he expressed that they “don’t really care” about their preseason rank, saying it is solely based on last year’s performance and the players each team lost.
For Duquesne, their biggest loss was graduating four-year starting setter Mary Henry. Henry held the top spot in the Duquesne record books as the school’s all-time leader in assists — a mark she set just a season ago.
On the flip side in 2016, the Dukes now bring a lot of experience poised to propel Duquesne back to an elite member in the conference. The Red & Blue have four starters returning, and 11 of the 15 players on the Duquesne roster are returnees from the 2015-16 season.
Opperman expects sophomore Maddie Bazelak to really grab people’s attention this year with her abilities as an outside hitter.
Currently, Bazelak is doing just that, with 62 kills, 22 more than her closest teammate. He is also looking at his veterans Lacey Levers, Molly Davet, Maddie Burnham and Sammy Kline to keep the team focused on their goals.
Those goals include winning the A-10 and clinching a berth in the NCAA tournament, but right now Opperman is more focused on just getting better with every match and not looking too far ahead of schedule.
The team has qualified for six straight Atlantic 10 Championship tournaments but has managed only one A-10 title in that time. A big reason Opperman and his players believe that this year could be special is because of their depth. Along with their returnees, Opperman brought in a talented freshman class. He expects setter Dani Suiter and middle hitter Liz Wayne to make instant impacts as they begin their collegiate careers.
So far, the team is off to a 2-2 start after going 1-2 in the IUPUI Hampton Inn Invitational and recording a 3-2 win (25-22, 25-21, 24-26, 23-25, 16-14) at Youngstown State on Tuesday night.
Opperman was happy overall with his team’s performance versus the Penguins of YSU, but added that they need to avoid letting their opponents get on big runs.
“I felt we had a good tempo with our offense in the first two sets and then starting making some unforced errors in set three that we normally don’t make,” Opperman said. “It was nice that our players stayed aggressive to finish the match.”
Afterward, Opperman praised the efforts of Bazelak as well as junior middle hitter Abbey Trzeciak and sophomore setter Sydney McGinn.
McGinn and Suiter give the Dukes some depth at the setter position and they will be the ones faced with filling the vacancy left by Henry.
Beginning Friday Duquesne and Robert Morris University are co-hosting an invitational tournament in which the Dukes will play four games beginning on Friday with a match against Coppin State, as they look to build on their 2-2 start.