North Texas Daily

After strong finish to regular season, volleyball is excited for Conference USA Tournament

After strong finish to regular season, volleyball is excited for Conference USA Tournament

After strong finish to regular season, volleyball is excited for Conference USA Tournament
April 01
09:00 2021

A strange spring volleyball season brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic is approaching its close.

It was an up-and-down regular season for the volleyball team as they lost four straight matches to start the spring and went 6-9 over their first 15 matches. The Mean Green (11-10, Conference USA 6-6) then finished 5-1, winning four consecutive conference matches to qualify for the C-USA Tournament.

“We definitely had a come-together moment and ran a lot just to find like our roots, what we are really here for and who we are as a team,” Junior outside hitter Rhett Robinson said. “I think doing that alone, going through that together really helped us. Finding our identity, I think that’s really what turned it around for us, which is working together as a team. We got each other.”

With all eyes now on the conference tournament, North Texas has a first-round date with undefeated No. 19-ranked Western Kentucky University (18-0, C-USA 12-0) set for April 1 at 12 p.m.

“The team is excited because we fought back hard trying to get in the tournament,” Head coach Andrew Palileo said. “We put ourselves in a hole and we dug out of it and just got in there. We’re excited to play [Western Kentucky] and, at this point of the year, you’re all playing good teams. Everybody has our respect for sure, especially me, of all the teams that are in it, because we know how hard it is to get in.”

The Hilltoppers have lost three sets all season, dropping one apiece to Mercer University (14-7, Southern Conference 13-3), Marshall University (10-4, C-USA 8-4) and West Virginia University (10-11, Big 12 Conference 8-8).

Offensively, Western Kentucky is led in kills by junior middle hitter Lauren Matthews (219 kills) and sophomore outside hitter Paige Briggs (216 kills). Senior setter Nadia Dieudonne (671 assists) runs the show with a conference-leading 11.77 assists per set.

“I’m pretty excited,” Robinson said. “[Matthews], we’ve played against her […] before, so we know what to expect from her. She’s big and takes care of the ball. Then [Briggs], she’s also very good. They’re good, they know they’re good, we just got to go in there knowing that we’re good too. When they come at us, we got to be able to adjust and throw it right back at them. Knowing how highly they are ranked, that makes it even more exciting. They’re a good team, let’s go and see if we can do it.”

One key mid-season addition for North Texas is regaining senior outside hitter Valerie Valerian. After missing the first 12 matches this spring due to an internship, Valerian made her return in the team’s March 7-8 series against Rice University (14-4, C-USA 12-0). She has posted 80 kills and 92 digs since returning (excluding her one match in the fall) and the Mean Green have gone 5-3, rattling off five straight wins after dropping both matches to the Owls.

“When you’ve been a part of the program for four years, some of the things feel like muscle memory and just working back in, little kinks and rust,” Valerian said. “Obviously I still have some rust here and there but overall, I feel like it sticks with you. That’s where I’ve just been trying to fall back to the experience [I’ve] gained the last four years.”

In losing Valerian for a chunk of the season — a two-time First Team All-Conference selection who tallied 1,086 kills and 893 digs over her first three seasons — North Texas needed to find production elsewhere. The Mean Green found an answer in Robinson who ranks No. 9 in the NCAA in total kills with 337 during the regular season.

After tallying 264 kills last season, Robinson said her teammates helped her succeed in an increased role.

“In past years, I probably didn’t have the confidence that I’ve had this season,” Robinson said. “As soon as we’re losing Val, someone had to step up, so [my teammates] giving me that opportunity and allowing me to do that was really important. I know I wouldn’t have done it alone, they really helped me to do that.”

Some other key contributors for North Texas are senior setter Kaliegh Skopal (749 assists) and junior defensive specialist Henrianna Ibarra (team-high 265 digs). Skopal has made a comeback from Guillain-Barre Syndrome this season after it sidelined her for the team’s last seven matches of the 2019 season. Coming off two consecutive season-ending ACL injuries, Ibarra has also returned to a key role for the Mean Green.

With the finale of the season looming as the C-USA Tournament approaches, the team remains geared up and prepared for what could be the final game of the season.

“I think it’s just going to be fun,” Valerian said. “Especially to compete against [Matthews and Briggs], they’re well-renowned names. Not just in conference, but we’re recognizing some familiar faces from when we went to the USA trials this summer. Just overall athletes competing, it’s going to be a fun game. It fires you up, especially for potentially our last game of the season.”

Featured Image: Senior middle blocker Miranda Youmans prepares to spike the ball against Louisiana Tech on March 15, 2021. Image by Zachary Thomas

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John Fields

John Fields

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