The pieces were always there. The outstanding defense, the powerful hitting and the height in the middle have always been there, but the players have struggled to manifest themselves at the same time.
Now, led by a core group of seniors whose leadership has catapulted the team to the top of the SEC standings, Ole Miss volleyball is poised to make a deep run in the SEC and secure a ticket to the NCAA Tournament.
“Part of it has to be experience… kind of the trials and tribulations of… our seniors going through their first three years and learning what worked and what didn’t,” head coach Steven McRoberts said.
McRoberts has been at Ole Miss for over five years and has slowly been building a program capable of running with the big dogs in the SEC.
“As fun as it is to get votes (in the AVCA Coaches’ Top 25) … that’s huge for our program, so I don’t want to make light of that, but we also have to understand that there’s a long way to go, and we have to keep wanting to continue to get better,” McRoberts said.
The Rebels will play two matches this weekend at home against Arkansas and Texas A&M. Entering this weekend, they’ve won 13 straight matches, the longest winning streak in the SEC and the fourth longest in the country. They are just one win away from tying the school record for longest win streak set it 2014.
This week they also received votes in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 for the first time since 2007. Their seven wins on the road this year is the second highest streak in program history, and they have not yet played a third of their SEC schedule.
So where did all this success come from? How did a team with a losing record last year turn it around so quickly?
Coaches say it is this group of seniors, their veteran leadership and their dedication to the game that has carried the team to so much success in the early season.
“Our senior leadership is really strong. We’ve got a core group of seniors who have played a lot throughout their time at Ole Miss, and I think they’re just ready to put it all out on the court,” said assistant coach Tori Plugge.
This year’s volleyball squad fields four seniors that have been key contributors for years and it all starts with Emily Stroup. The 6-foot outside hitter from Fargo, North Dakota, finished second in the country in kills last season and demolished nearly every possible program scoring record.
“I feel like we’ve been working for this since our freshman year,” Stroup said. “Sometimes it’s been really frustrating, but I think us four seniors have done a really good job in staying loyal to the program and trusting the process. It’s nice to finally see it pay off.”
She is perhaps the most talented and most explosive offensive weapon in the school’s history, but it is her effort on the other side of the ball that sets her apart as a leader. Stroup leaps for every block, dives for every dig and is not afraid to put her body on the line to extend a rally and score a point. Her intensity is matched only by the team’s heart and soul: their leader and libero Nicole Purcell.
Purcell has been a driving factor in the Rebs’ current success as her leadership and communication has led the team to be one of the best defensive groups in the conference. She flies all over the floor on defense and has single-handedly won sets with phenomenal digs in crucial moments. Her 23 digs in three sets on Sunday against Auburn were the third most in a three-set match in school history and she currently leads the SEC with 300 on the season.
Purcell is just 24 shy of 1,000 career digs and will reach that threshold this weekend. Her effort is why Ole Miss leads the SEC in total digs and digs per set.
“All of us have just kind of come into our role,” said Purcell. “We knew we really wanted to have a successful last year and we all stepped up and made a game plan and we’ve been sticking to it.”
Another senior who has stepped into her role with brilliance is middle blocker Nayo Warnell. She was named SEC offensive player of the week twice already this season and has been a key player during this run. She leads the conference and is in the top 15 nationally with a .433 hitting percentage.
Her blocking ability in the middle has stifled opposing offenses and provided an extra boost to the Rebels’ defense. Warnell is third in program history in blocks and ranks in the top 10 in program history in nine different categories.
“I think (the record) is something that’s in the back of my mind,” Warnell says. “Obviously I want to keep climbing up and get more blocks as I go.”
The senior who has perhaps sacrificed the most for the sake of the team is outside hitter Leah Mulkey. As a player who was third on the team in kills as a junior last year, Mulkey has seen her role on offense reduced this season thanks to the influx of young talent, but has been prolific when on the court. She has hit above .400 in four of the 10 matches she has appeared in this season and has contributed kills in key moments down the stretch of matches. She has also been active in the huddle and on the bench, cheering on teammates and providing energy.
The final piece to the puzzle seems to be freshman outside hitter Anna Bair. The two-time SEC Freshman of the Week has dazzled so far and exceeded all expectations for her freshman campaign. She recorded 28 kills in the three matches on opening weekend, second-most in the SEC by a freshman.
“I think the help of all the upperclassmen has helped me be confident coming in because they have my back every time I make a mistake,” Bair said. “They hype me up and taught me how to move on to the next set.”
In a team with four senior leaders, a freshman with the confidence to play in the SEC, a coaching staff that has built a culture of dedication and hard work, a top-tier setter like junior Lauren Bars, two more formidable middle blockers and a supporting class chock-full of young talent what do you get?
The Rebels hope it’s an NCAA Tournament run.