By Andrew Holman | Sports Editor
Adversity is a force that affects nearly every team in every sport, every season. The teams tough enough to withstand that adversity and push through it are typically the ones who find success at season’s end.
Duquesne head volleyball coach Steve Opperman has assembled and trained a group seemingly resilient enough to overcome anything that stands in the way of the team’s goals. In the preseason, Opperman was focused on just getting better with each match, but also noted the desire to win the Atlantic 10 and secure a bid in the NCAA tournament.
Coming off of a 14-15 season in which they were bounced in the opening round of the A-10 tournament, those goals may have seemed a bit ambitious. But Duquesne’s first 22 matches of the 2016 campaign tell a much different story.
Opperman said before the season that his team needed to have a more aggressive mindset.
“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.”
Crushing opponents is what Duquesne has done best. Half of Duquesne’s wins so far in 2016 have come from straight set victories. The Dukes haven’t been content to take a 2-0 set lead and then just hope one of the last three falls their way — they have gotten after it.
No matter who has been out there on the court, the effort has been there. Currently, the Dukes rank first in the conference in digs per set with an average of 16.14. Opperman’s players have been willing to take the floor burns and lay out for anything in sight.
The grit and the hustle of this team are the reason they sit at 16-6 overall and the reason Duquesne finds itself second in the A-10 standings at a 6-1 mark in conference. Not to mention the fact that the Dukes are currently on a seven match win streak and have gone a perfect 9-0 at home.
“We are just playing aggressive volleyball,” Opperman said. “We are excited. The kids are playing disciplined ball. Different lineups with injuries … Kids are just doing a great job with whatever is thrown at them. They are staying disciplined and just staying aggressive out on the floor.”
Injuries? They have had more than their fair share. However, a number of players have stepped up and showed off their versatility, allowing the Red & Blue to overcome the injury bug.
Senior Lacey Levers has been limited all season by a shoulder injury. Instead of being content to watch her final year of NCAA eligibility slip away while she watches from the sidelines, Levers adapted her game so that she can fill in for Duquesne in the back row. In the Dukes last win over Rhode Island, Levers tallied five digs in her new role.
Over the course of just the past week, sophomore outside hitter Maddie Bazelak and freshman middle hitter Liz Wayne both suffered injuries that kept them out of the match versus the Rams. Duquesne didn’t blink. After falling to the Rams in straight sets earlier in the year, Duquesne turned the tides and blanked Rhode Island 3-0 (25-21, 25-22, 25-13) to steal second place away from Rhode Island in the conference standings.
“We have definitely had to face a lot of adversity since preseason,” junior outside hitter Molly Davet said. “However, I think it shows how strong of a team we are … Our team as a whole has worked to make the pieces fit and do anything to get a win.”
A big reason Duquesne finds itself second in the A-10 is because of the ability of freshman setter Dani Suiter to step up and perform well beyond her years. As of Oct. 16, Suiter ranked No. 74 in NCAA Division I for assists per set (10.19) as a freshman. She also sits inside the top 30 in service aces (33) after recording five in the third set alone versus Rhode Island.
“She is doing a really great job of actually learning the game as we are going,” Opperman said. “As a freshman sometimes it’s hard to come and lead your team, but she has done a great job with that. And then serving — I just couldn’t ask for more.”
Suiter and her teammates will have to continue battling the adversity as they head into the final stretch of the regular season. The Dukes have a tough remaining schedule, which includes two dates with the Dayton Flyers — a team that has dominated the A-10 conference in recent history. The Flyers have won six of the past seven tournament championships. Duquesne won the only other in that timespan in 2013 and will look to repeat that performance this season.
If they can continue as a resilient bunch, this Duquesne volleyball team has a chance to do something very special once the conference tournament rolls around.