Defensive style of play defines volleyball team’s identity

The Owls are in the top 20 in Division I in blocks per set.

Senior middle blocker Janine Simmons (left) and senior outside hitter Izzy Rapacz attempt to block a Wichita State attack during Friday’s loss at McGonigle Hall. | MIKE NGUYEN / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Within two years, the Owls have improved 197 spots in blocks per set rankings in Division I.

In 2015, Temple ranked 213th with 1.89 blocks per set. The Owls ranked 125th last season at 2.14 blocks per set. This season, the Owls have continued their year-to-year improvement at the net.

Temple is the 16th-best team in Division I in blocks per set, averaging 2.87 through 10 matches.

The Owls (5-5, 1-1 American Athletic Conference) set their defensive tone early in the season. In its first game against Northeastern University, Temple closed out its sweep of the Huskies with a double block by senior outside hitter Izzy Rapacz and junior middle blocker Carla Guennewig.

Since then, the Owls have reached double figures in total blocks in seven games, including Sunday’s sweep of Memphis.

The numbers reflect Temple’s defensive culture, but the Owls have always been a defensive-minded team even if it didn’t show on the stat sheet, senior outside hitter and co-captain Dara Peric said.

“Our style of play hasn’t really changed much in the last couple of years, at least since I’ve been here,” Peric said. “We try to have good defense and always focus on having good first touches.”

“An issue that we had [earlier] was not working as a team, and I think we’ve definitely finally clicked,” Rapacz said.

Rapacz, senior middle blocker Janine Simmons and junior middle blocker Iva Deak, rank in the top 60 in blocks per set among all Division I players this season. The trio also leads The American in blocks per set. Rapacz has 1.34, Simmons has 1.32 and Deak has 1.25.

Temple’s defensive effort this season has been fruitful. In each of its five wins, Temple has recorded 11 total blocks.

Temple’s season high in blocks came in a 3-2 loss to the University of Maryland when it had 18 blocks on Aug. 26. Although Temple lost the match, coach Bakeer Ganesharatnam said it was probably one the best matches the team has played.

“Defense is certainly one of our strengths and definitely something we identify with,” Peric said. “If we manage to keep that at a certain level, everything else should pretty much follow along.”

When Temple struggles at the net it struggles all around, too.

During their loss against Colgate University on Sept. 1, the Owls recorded a season-low three blocks. Temple’s inability to effectively make first contact against Colgate led to the Owls hitting 4.5 percent, including a set in which Temple hit just negative 3.4 percent. It was Temple’s worst hitting percentage of the season and the only time the Owls have been swept in 2017.

Simmons said games when the Owls underperformed highlighted where they needed to improve.

“We knew we should’ve been able to come together as a team and didn’t,” Simmons said of the Colgate game. “It made us go back to the drawing board and see what we need to do. That really helped us create that [defensive] identity.”

Simmons leads the team with eight solo blocks and 45 total blocks. Before the season started, Simmons made a goal to increase her block totals.

Temple’s defensive progression has been a main focus throughout the season, and the team is happy to see its hard work pay off, Simmons said.

“The team’s defense and blocking is very well,” Deak said. “We practice blocking a lot during practices and coach does a very good job of explaining to us the timing and technique, so I think we’ll get even better as time goes by.”

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