In the 2018 season, the LMU volleyball team made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015, reaching the second round in the process. As the 2019 season begins, the team wants to not only replicate that result but to improve upon it as well.
“Making the NCAA Tournament is always the goal,” head coach Aaron Mansfield said. “You want to catch fire and [play] your best volleyball at the end of the year. We did it last year and our intention is to do the same thing this year.”
The team has confidence that they can achieve these long-term goals, with the coaches and players both trusting that they have the talent and the mentality necessary to have another strong season.
The primary difference on offense between this upcoming season and last season is the absence of a key player. In the offseason, the team lost opposite Sara Kovac when she graduated last spring. In 2018, she led the team in kills by a comfortable margin and was an offensive leader for the Lions. In notable late-season matches, such as the straight-sets upset of then-No. 1 BYU and the NCAA tournament matches, she recorded crucial points and got the offense going.
However, her impact wasn’t just in the numbers. Toward the end of the 2018 season, she developed chemistry with starting setter Tess Reid, and their tandem was a major contributor to LMU’s at-large tournament bid.
But the Lions are confident that they can fill the void that her departure left. The vast majority of their players from last season have returned and they all have another year of experience under their belt. In addition, they are bringing in a strong freshman recruiting class highlighted by outside hitter Rose Booth and middle blocker Emmelyn Walters. They are among the many freshmen expected to contribute right away.
Furthermore, redshirt junior outside hitter Megan Rice, who missed last season due to injury, according to LMU Athletics, is preparing to make her return. She placed second on the team in kills in 2017 and she is looking forward to once again making an impact.
“This offseason for me was really about getting healthy,” she said. “It’s just about making sure I’m healthy and strong and being able to play and help my team consistently.”
She also stated that offseason practices were a big factor in helping her once again find her place within the Lions’ system.
“During summer, we played a lot in open gym and we were able to get that setter-hitter connection and chemistry back,” she said.
Other notable returners include two additional outside hitters — senior Savannah Slattery and junior Meredith Teague. Both were important to last year’s team and both will likely see their roles increase from last season. Junior opposite Sierra Bartley is another player who will see more time on the floor.
Without a top hitter to set, Reid, entering her senior year, is looking forward to spreading the wealth.
“We miss [Kovac] a ton, but we have a lot of players this year and we’re really deep,” she said. “I feel comfortable going to all of them and relying on all of them as much as I had to last year with Kovac.”
Mansfield spoke with similar optimism in terms of the team’s depth and praised many of the offensive stars by name.
“This year, we’re just going to be able to set a wide variety of attackers,” he said. “With Savannah Slattery, Rose Booth, Meredith [Teague], Emma [Johnson], Emmy Walters, Sierra Bartley, Megan Rice when she’s healthy … I think we’re going to be harder to defend this year because we’re going to have more options.”
Mansfield acknowledged that there is a lot of work left to be done—especially on the defensive side—but he was hopeful with regard to his team’s potential.
“We believe that we have the players and the skillset to [make the tournament] and we’ve just got to make it happen,” he said.
The mindset for the season—held by Mansfield and the players alike—was one that Teague succinctly summarized.
“I want to go to the tournament,” she said with a grin. “Back to the dance.”
The Lions open the regular season with a match against the Samford University Bulldogs at the University of Arizona Tournament in Tucson at 12:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30.