The fall was always bound to be difficult for the Viterbo volleyball team.
The V-Hawks were down a few key players because of injuries, while the COVID-19 pandemic cut their preseason short and threatened to interrupt an already altered schedule at any point.
But 16th-year coach Ryan DeLong knew those challenges weren’t unique to his team, and that firmly placed responsibility for a disappointing fall on Viterbo’s shoulders.
The V-Hawks lost the final three games of the fall portion of their schedule and entered their break over the winter months at 2-6, despite being picked to win the NSAA by the conference’s coaches ahead of the season.
While Viterbo was far from pleased with how it had played, there was one positive side effect.
“I think just tasting some of that failure that we did in the fall kind of woke us up a little bit and I think refocused us, as well,” DeLong said. “Because it was definitely on us.”
The V-Hawks have certainly looked like a focused team in the spring, and they seem to be finding their stride at the right time.
Viterbo has won nine of its 10 games since returning to play at the beginning of March — with its lone loss coming to seventh-ranked Northwestern (Iowa) — and seven of those wins have come in straight sets. The team made quick work of Presentation (S.D.) in the opening round of the NSAA Tournament and will play at Mayville State (N.D.) in a semifinal game on Tuesday.
“We knew we had to go 8-0 in conference even just to give ourselves a chance to kind of have some success, and we did that,” said DeLong, whose team now sits at 11-7 overall. “I was pretty proud of how we responded to the poor fall that we had.”
One of the reasons the V-Hawks have been able to make such a quick turnaround is the return of sophomore setter Abbey Johnson (6.3 assists per set) from injury. Johnson led the team in assists last season, and getting her back has allowed senior Chloe Jakscht — who filled in at setter — to move to a more natural defensive position.
Along with that, Holmen High School graduate and sophomore outside hitter Kenzie Winker (2.9 kills per set) has stepped up to complement seniors Maya Roberts (3.3 kills per set) and Katie Frohmader (2.4 kills per set) on the attack — which is still without an injured Miah Garant — while Caledonia grad Adrianna Reinhart (4.5 digs per set) has boosted the defense.
When put together, DeLong said he’s seen a marked improvement in Viterbo’s serve receiving — which, of course, helps its attack run as designed.
“That’s where Adrianna has stepped up really well and kind of been that staple back there, and Chloe as well,” DeLong said. “Those two back there have been really good and kind of starting our offensive attack with a good pass.”
The V-Hawks’ play down the stretch has vaulted them to No. 20 in the NAIA Coaches’ Poll, and they hope to earn a spot in the NAIA Tournament for the seventh straight year. Viterbo could do so by winning the NSAA Tournament, though they could also be given an at-large bid.
A win over Mayville State (23-9) would go a long way toward either path.
The V-Hawks, who were given the No. 3 seed for the conference tournament, split with the Comets, the No. 2 seed, in the regular season — losing in four sets in the fall before winning in straight sets in the spring.
Mayville State is led by junior Victoria Johnson, who averages 3.76 kills per set with a .316 hitting percentage. Sophomore Elora Passa leads the team in assists (4.97 per set) and is behind only Johnson in kills (2.54 per set).
The winner will advance to the conference tournament title game on April 10 — where they would meet the winner of top-seeded Bellevue (Neb.) and No. 4 Dakota State (S.D.).
“We believe we can be in system a lot against them, and as long as we don’t make errors offensively, I think we can have some big nights,” DeLong said. “... If we play fairly error-free and make Mayville earn points, we should have a lot of success.”