After a rather disappointing season a year ago, the Ole Miss Volleyball team has started out the 2021 campaign red hot, winning its first eight matches for the first time since 2007 and securing its first top 15 win since 2010.
Just one year removed from an underwhelming 1-19 season, second year head coach Kayla Banwarth and her Rebels find themselves 8-0 with only three matches to play before the beginning of conference play.
The Rebels entered last weekend 5-0 before sweeping the Holiday Inn-University Plaza Invitational, which included a win over the 15th nationally ranked Western Kentucky Hilltoppers.
Junior Anna Bair has been an absolute force for the Rebels so far this season. The junior outside hitter leads the team in multiple categories, including 28 sets played, 99.5 points and 94 kills.
Bair’s dominance has been accompanied by a string of impressive outings from sophomore middle blocker Sasha Ratliff, who was rewarded for her recent success by being named SEC Player of the Week and SEC Offensive Player of the Week after recording 36 kills in three matches.
“It’s really exciting to see (Ratliff) play the way she has, especially being one of Banwarth’s first pickups last year,” said Jennifer Saxon, the Ole Miss sport supervisor for volleyball.
Although Bair and Ratliff have been the standouts of the team so far, many people within the program feel like this team is stacked from top to bottom. The Rebels feel that not one person is bigger than the team.
“I think all of our athletes have the capacity to be dominant, we’re all just waiting on that moment when one player breaks through,” Saxon said.
In just her second year as head coach, Banwarth has already had success unlike many other coaches have had in Oxford.
“She’s a winner, if you look at her track record, it shows that,” Saxon said. “She’s a student of the game. We celebrate a win and she’s back at it immediately.”
“I feel that coach Banwarth has really done an amazing job with us in pushing us on and off the court. She has really been able to show everyone of us what it truly means to be an Ole Miss rebel,” said rebel right-side hitter Samantha Schnitta.
For Banwarth, turning the program around has been no easy task. She said she has had to really focus on building a winning team and changing the culture of the program.
In order to build a winning team, Banwarth decided the Rebels would need to hit the transfer portal during her first offseason if they were to turn this thing around.
“We added nine new players to the team this year,” Banwarth said. “Those new players are making a big impact.”
Banwarth says the new players along with it being her second year of teaching her system has made a huge difference.
Banwarth has her newly built team playing like a completely different one from the year prior.
“This team has been committed to doing the little things and focusing on the basics,” Saxon said. If you watch this team, when there’s a long set, they never give up. They correct mistakes immediately and constantly focus on getting better.”
As far as changing the culture goes, players and coaches are hopeful that students and fans will buy into Banwarth’s program just as much as the players have.
“We want to make sure there is not an empty seat in the house,” said Saxon.”We are constantly striving for a better environment.”
Putting the early season success behind them, Banwarth says her team will continue to train hard and try to get better everyday.
The Rebels will be in action this weekend at the Indiana Invitational, playing Chicago State on Thursday and both Alabama A&M and Indiana on Friday. This will be their last three matches before the long grind of SEC play begins.
“There are a lot of things we still have to get better at if we want to make waves in the SEC,” Banwarth said. “So, we get after it in the gym every day and we compete hard to learn and improve daily.”