Last year, the TWU volleyball team had one of its most successful seasons in the program’s history, finishing 15-5 in the Lone Star Conference, advancing to the conference tournament and finishing 23-8 overall.
But this year, qualifying for the conference tournament, something the Pioneers have done in each of head coach Shelly Barberee’s previous 10 seasons, pales in comparison to what they hope to achieve this year.
“Last year we focused on conference, and this year we are better than that,” Barberee said. “So, from the first day, I haven’t said anything about conference. I said that we want to host the conference tournament and that means we win conference. We focus on region. You’ve got to look beyond conference, but our whole scheduling this year was to prepare us for the region.”
The Lone Star Conference certainly poses strong tests for the Pioneers throughout the season, but in order to advance to the NCAA tournament, TWU needs to be regionally ranked, something the team missed out on by the slimmest of margins last year.
Winning the games they did wasn’t enough. Now coaches and programs have to encompass regional and national attention into their schedules.
This season, Barberee made it a major focus for her team to not only be tested early and often this season but to be tested and compete against the regional teams from the Heartland Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference to raise the respect and acclaim the team can hopefully achieve this season.
“I made our schedule this year because last year we were literally one game out of regionals,” Barberee said. “We lost to Fort Hays [State] when we were in Colorado last year and it put us out of the regional rankings. Our preseason schedule this year is the toughest in the conference because every team we play is ranked in some form or fashion.”
The Pioneers have five seniors on this year’s roster ready to get them into the NCAA tournament, but replacing Viktorija Jablonska, who became the first player in TWU history to receive All-America honors along with LSC offensive player of the year and newcomer of the year honors, will be a task put upon several of the players this season.
“Other players are stepping up, and I think it’s because we are stronger all the way around,” Barberee said. “Victoria had all the pressure last year, so this year, no one has to take that pressure.”
One of those seniors is 6-foot middle blocker Chloe’ Tate, who is ready to take on a leadership role this season on and off the court.
Tate, who was elected to be one of the team’s captains along with junior setter Kayla Rivero, has been an integral part of TWU’s offense, leading the team in solo blocks, total blocks and block assists the past two seasons.
“All of us hope to be that person, and I like to think my team relies on me offensively,” Tate said. “It’s something I’d like to take on. It’s a lot of pressure being that go-to person, but I like the pressure, so it’s OK with me. We have so many hitters, I can’t pick one person. All across the board, we have really good hitters.”
Tate also made first-team all-LSC last season along with Jablonska, and Barberee expects Tate to excel this season as well.
“We have five seniors this year, and Chloe is one of our big guns,” Barberee said. “I’ve said all along, we aren’t trying to get one person to take over for Victoria. She stood on her own. But we are trying to get more guns at the net. Marcela Alves is strong and so is Chloe. When you have strong middles, It’s hard to defend the middle.”
TWU (5-3) will kick off LSC play against Texas A&M-Commerce at 7 p.m. today. Even with the difficult early schedule, the Pioneers were able to go 3-1 against regional teams.
This past weekend the Pioneers traveled to Golden, Colo., for the Oredigger Volleyball Classic. They struggled on the first day, losing the first two matches to Grand Valley State and nationally-ranked Colorado School of Mines, but recovered to defeat Western Oregon and Fort Lewis the next day.
Tate said the tournament was effective for the Pioneers, as they were able to highlight several positives, but also saw some areas that need improvement. One area was communication, according to Tate.
“It’s tough to even stay engaged in two games in one day,” Tate said. “That’s even hard. It’s a constant choice to be engaged in the game and to be talking. In volleyball, communication is probably the No. 1 thing. If you’re not talking, you’re not engaged. You have to be mentally engaged, because physically we all know how to play volleyball.”
Despite the loss of Jablonska and several other key cogs to last seasons’ 23-8 squad, Tate said the team’s personalities are meshing well and is encouraged at the steps they are taking towards their goal of winning the conference and advancing to the NCAA tournament as a team, not as individuals.
“It’s basically expected of us,” Tate said of winning the LSC. “We got further last year than we’ve ever gone. We want to win it. I think it’s going to have to be a team effort. The sport of volleyball, with six people on a small court, it has to be communication and team work. With that many people, you can’t have one person run the team. It has to be all six of us.”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.