Ole Miss volleyball returned for the 2017 season Friday morning as the Rebel Invitational took to the brand new Gillom Sports Center. Going 3-1 on the weekend, the Rebels beat Louisiana Tech, Chattanooga and Florida A&M, but fell just short in a tight match with North Dakota.
Friday versus Louisiana Tech:
The 2017 volleyball season began in spectacular fashion Friday. Starting the year off with a crazy rally, the Rebels took the opening lead over Louisiana Tech and carried the momentum through the match. After going on to win the first set, the Rebels found themselves behind 2-1 after two nail-biter set losses. Finishing the fourth game on a 21-12 run, the Rebels rallied behind crucial kills from junior transfer Caitlin Wernentin and senior star Lexi Thompson and tied the match at two games a piece. Breaking a 10-10 tie, sophomore Emily Stroup finished a five-point, game-winning run with three straight kills for the Rebels. Wernentin, who made her Ole Miss debut, finished with 10 kills on a .222 attack percentage, while Thompson started the year off with her first double-double of the year, recording 13 kills and 19 digs.
“She was the most solid hitter for us Friday and all weekend and served well from the line, getting teams out of system,” Coach Steve McRoberts said of Stroup’s performance.
Friday versus North Dakota:
Back at it Friday night, the nightcap didn’t go as planned. Ole Miss grabbed a 2-0 lead and had five match points – three in the fourth and two in the fifth – but North Dakota saved all five to win it 17-15 in the fifth set. The silver lining of the heartbreaking match was the number of all-around contributors. Stroup notched a career-high kills, Wernentin posted a .333 clip, junior Caroline Adams posted a career-best 31 digs and both Thompson and senior Kate Gibson had double-doubles on the night.
“North Dakota is a really good team,” Gibson said. “Obviously losing sucks, but I’d rather lose to a team that made the tournament so we know what it takes to get there.”
Saturday versus Chattanooga:
After refueling from a vigorous Friday full of five-setters, the Rebels only needed three sets to beat Chattanooga on Saturday afternoon. Both sophomore Nayo Warnell and freshman Bayleigh Scott got more involved out of the middle in Saturday’s match, opening up the entire 6-2 offense for setters Lauren Bars and Jordan Fate. However, the defense was the headline on the day, posting 64 digs an average of 21 digs per match. Thompson recorded six digs per set, and Caroline Adams had five digs per set to lead the defensive attack. After taking the first two sets by decisive scores of 25-18 and 25-19, Ole Miss raced out to a 10-5 lead in set three and went on to win it 25-22.
“Coming back Saturday and winning in three was very important for us,” Gibson said. “When we come together and play as a team, we can be unstoppable, and it showed on Saturday.”
Sunday versus Florida A&M:
In the opening weekend’s final match, the Rebels looked stagnant to start but found their mojo deep into the first set. After seemingly sitting back on their heels to begin the first set, Gibson and Warnell stepped up and got the ladies in red going. Warnell, who will anchor the Ole Miss forefront all year, made her presence known with three huge blocks and three kills in the 25-21 first-game win.
“It’s important to be consistent in the middle and not always rely on our pin hitters,” Warnell said. “I felt like today I was able to pull the block and open up our offense.”
McRoberts echoed praise of Warnell’s quality play on the court.
“We had two really good performances today and yesterday from our middles,” he said. “They hit for a high percentage and were involved with a lot of blocks. To have 10 today between them in three sets will help our confidence.”
In the second game, the Rebels kept their momentum from the first and built a sizable lead early in the set. Senior Lexi Thompson came alive and helped that lead grow as both teams showed defensive prowess with several impressive rallies. Florida A&M hung around after a few Ole Miss mistakes, but Gibson continued her dominance late in the set as the Rebels took the second game 25-21 once again.
“At first, our passing was weak and our hitters played great, and then our hitters struggled, so the passers picked up the slack,” Gibson said. “Collectively, we worked together to get out of a rut and pull it out.”
The Rebels put an exclamation point on the match in a convincing third set. Thompson was on fire the whole set as she finished off her 37th career double-double with 14 kills and 17 digs, leading the Rebels to a 3-1 record on the young season.
“When Lexi plays well and when Kate plays well, we have a really good chance to win,” McRoberts said. “Today, we saw that. We had ample opportunities to go 4-0 on the weekend, but it’s clear that we have a team that’s going to be tough to beat.”