Coming off of a victory in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship last year, the Ole Miss Volleyball team faces higher expectations than ever, and coaches are encouraged by the steady progress the team made in the preseason.
“We’ve shown things early in these first 2 1/2 weeks of practice that (show) we will be a better program,” head coach Steven McRoberts said.
The Rebels are ranked No. 11 in the SEC Preseason Coaches’ Poll, but coaches are quick to point out that the team has exceeded expectations in each of the past four seasons.
“We have (taken a step forward) every year,” McRoberts said. “If you look at where the coaches voted us every year, we’ve never finished at or below where the coaches voted us.”
Assistant head coach Ronaldo Pacheco also expressed optimism for the coming season, adding, “I am very excited for these first few games. I think we had a very good spring, and all the players were very engaged in the summertime.”
Outside hitter Emily Stroup, who was key to the Rebels’ success in the NIVC last year, said she feels that the team can surprise many people outside the program.
“I think because of the way we finished last year, we’re all really confident,” Stroup said. “We had a great preseason, so I think this year we would like to accomplish making it to the NCAA Tournament.”
Senior defensive specialist Caroline Adams, who in 2017 set the school single-season record for digs (522), said she was also confident in the team’s ability to exceed expectations.
“Our end goal is, ultimately, making the NCAA Tournament,” Adams said.
Coaches and players alike say that the depth of this year’s team can help push them past other middle-of-the-pack SEC teams and possibly even garner an NCAA Tournament berth.
“We have a lot of young players that are stepping up … We have four really good players in that (defensive specialist) spot,” McRoberts said. “Both of our setters are back, and our three middles … it’s nice to have three quality players in that spot.”
In practice on Wednesday, the Rebels engaged in three-on-three, four-on-four, five-on-five and full six-on-six drills, and several players pleased coaches with big plays. Audrey Fischer and Emily Engelken, both of whom are coming off injury, had powerful kills in the six-on-six matches and looked ready for game action.
Sophomore Bayleigh Scott was imposing in the middle blocker position and seemed to get a hand on every shot, including a sequence of three powerful blocks, each of which caused Coach Pacheco to cheer his approval.
“I say, ‘Have fun,’ because it’s fun to play against teams and beat good teams,” Pacheco said. “I think the motivation to play against good programs helps (our players) grow as players and as people, as well.”
Coaches are confident in the team’s ability to win big games this year but realize that playing a tough SEC schedule, which includes two games against both No. 5 Kentucky and No. 7 Florida, allows for few mistakes to be made.
“They’ve got the athletes, the coaching … we’ve had some opportunities (in the past),” McRoberts said. “You just can’t give them an opening because once you do, they kick the door open, and you’re gone.”
The Rebels open the 2018 season with a doubleheader versus Virginia at 10 a.m. Friday and versus No. 21 Iowa St. at 6 p.m. at Iowa State.