Duquesne volleyball set to return following postponed fall season

Courtesy of Duquesne Athletics | Duquesne volleyball players, including Ego Onu (No. 8, center), cheer on their teammates during a 2017 match against VCU. Onu, now a redshirt junior, is one of the Dukes’ top returning players. Duquesne is set to open its 2021 schedule on Feb. 12 against VCU at the newly-renovated UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.

Brentaro Yamane | Staff Writer

Feb. 4, 2021

Steve Opperman is a competitor and wants to win as many matches as possible.

This season will be Opperman’s 23rd year as the head coach of Duquesne’s women’s volleyball team. Before the 2019 season, his Dukes team had made the Atlantic 10 tournament for nine straight years. However, in the 2019 season, the Dukes faced injuries and finished the year with a 10-17 overall record (and a 4-10 conference mark), resulting in the end of their nine-year A-10 tournament appearance streak. For Opperman, knowing that his team could not reach the A-10 tournament was definitely frustrating, and he is doing whatever he can to get the Dukes back to contention again.

“Obviously, when your season doesn’t go like it’s supposed to, I think you always want to bounce back with a winning record. I think our kids did some nice things, even though we didn’t have a winning record in 2019,” Opperman said, who played collegiate volleyball at Ohio State. “The freshmen took it hard when they realized that we were not going to make the A-10 tournament. They felt like they let the team down.”

This season, Duquesne will only play 10 games, with all of their matches set for conference play against either Davidson, VCU, Dayton or Saint Louis. For the Dukes, it has been tough to get everyone together for full-team practices due to COVID-19 protocols, but all of the players have been doing their best to train. The Dukes did not have a full-team practice with all of their players until Jan. 21.

With the way the team has been practicing, Opperman has liked the improvement he has seen from the group.

“We had a great training block in the fall,” Opperman said. “I think we’re starting to be a better ball control team than we were in the fall of 2019 because of the younger kids growing up and maturing, so it has sharpened just a bit. On an attacking standpoint, we’ve cleaned some things up in that area. I think the biggest improvement that I hope will translate on the floor is our blocking.”

The Dukes lost three seniors from last season in Kaitlyn Knurek, Dani Suiter and Liz Wayne. They all brought leadership, but the fact that Suiter and Wayne missed some games last season due to illness and injuries gave some of the younger players more experience.

Going into this season, Opperman thinks everyone on the team has grown into their roles. He thinks all of his players are doing a good job of what him and staff are asking them to do. Some of the players that stick out on the team are Morgan Kelly (sophomore) and Ego Onu (redshirt junior).

“Morgan is really starting to come into her own. She is a kid that our opponents will be eyeing on the future,” Opperman said. “Ego is quiet and has done some nice things in the past. She is really starting to understand how good of a player that she can be, and she is providing that on the floor. She wants to know what she needs to work on to have the team be better.”

One key player returning for the Dukes this season is Summer Slade (junior). She led the Dukes in kills last year with 248.

Ashley Larson (sophomore), Claire Boe (redshirt junior), Hailey Poling (sophomore), Maria Bosbacher (senior), Summer and Ego played all 27 matches last season and all return for the Dukes this year. It should bode well for Duquesne to return such experienced players this season. Poling led the team in service aces (25) and assists (484) in 2019.

One of the newest players is junior Brittne Weigand, who joined the team in the fall. Weigand, who didn’t play on the team for her first two years of college, had previous competitive experience, playing both club volleyball for Elite Sports Ohio and at the high school ranks for Marlington High School in Ohio. However, after she had an opportunity to try out in the fall, she made the team and is already providing a spark.

“She really missed volleyball and asked to walk-on and try out. She knows how to pass the ball to the target and setter, she has a nice touch, knows what balls she is digging and she can read the floor well,” Opperman said, talking about Weigand’s tryout. “She just knows what it takes to compete, and she has brought the level of the gym up higher. Unbelievably, she is fearless. She digs ball after ball when one of our players serves it to her. Brittne is a great teammate, trains hard and can see some playing time.”

The Dukes also bring in three new freshmen this season in Riley Speelman, Camille Spencer and Olivia Alessi. So far, Opperman likes what he is seeing from his newcomers.

“Camille has a high volleyball IQ compared to most freshmen that I have coached. She will compete for a starting spot and should see a lot of playing time. She adjusted really quickly, and she was the first person in the gym to start talking trash in a non-derogatory way. She knows how to block and get into somebody’s face.”

“Olivia is a setter by trade and has a really nice touch and feel for the ball,” Opperman said. “Riley seems to have grown the most as a player and also has a really nice touch and feel for the ball.”

Duquesne’s first game will be Feb. 12 at home against VCU. It will be the first match the Dukes will play in the newly-renovated UPMC Cooper Fieldhouse.

The team was originally slated to open its season on Feb. 5 versus Davidson, but the match was postponed due to COVID-19-related issues in the Wildcats’ program.

“The players are extremely excited to play in the new arena. For them, being displaced wasn’t fun last year, practicing at the Power Center and playing home games at PPG Paints Arena and Mt. Lebanon High School,” Opperman said. “They keep asking me every day when they are going to see it. They are excited to be in their home facility.”

For the first time in Opperman’s coaching career, he — just like many coaches around the globe — is going to have to watch his players compete wearing masks. Even though the players already practice with masks on, Opperman admitted it’s going to be a little strange watching the team play with masks on.

“It’s tough. I’m not going to lie. It’s extremely tough. I guarantee you nobody wants to wear them, but our players understand the reason why we are doing it. The kids want to play, so they will make that commitment to keep themselves and their opponents safe,” he said.

This is the 30th-consecutive season that Opperman is a head coach at the Division I level. He spent his first seven seasons at Wright State, from 1991-1997.

Volleyball is a game that he loves and he hopes to give his players a great experience once they graduate college. This season, Opperman hopes he can help the Dukes win another A-10 volleyball championship. The last time they won it was in 2013.

“I pride myself in bringing good student-athletes, giving them a really good experience and graduating kids that go on to do really nice things,” Opperman said. “I feel young when I am in the gym. The best part of the day for me is training our kids. I get a lot out of making our players and team better, whether it’s in the gym or in the classroom.”

Editor’s Note: The article above originally appeared in print in The Duke’s Feb. 4 edition, but is being posted online Feb. 11. The Feb. 4 dateline will remain in order to reflect the article’s original publication date. The Duke’s Sports Editor, Adam Lindner, accepts full responsibility for this mishap.