While the Owls had an 18-12 season in 2013 – including a 9-9 showing in the American Athletic Conference – the 2014 squad is aiming to increase its focus on an aspect that was arguably its weakest link a year ago.
Temple’s defensive game yielded 40 fewer digs than its opponents last season, 29 fewer solo blocks and 91.5 fewer total blocks.
However, coach Bakeer Ganes said those particular stats don’t tell the whole story.
“[Defense is] something we emphasize and focus on,” Ganes said. “Last year we were not the biggest team in the conference so in order to stay in matches and rallies we had to play defense.”
Ganes noted that while block assists are not kept as an official stat, his team was adept at avoiding a kill by the opponent and getting the ball back in play to keep the point going. This led to a lot of digs and while opponents had 40 more than Temple last season, the Owls’ 1,777 total digs was a respectable total.
Ganes said he felt the team this season will be more capable defensively, especially when it comes to blocking.
“Throughout the recruiting process we focused on height and bringing in more athleticism,” Ganes added.
Standing at 6-foot-2-inches, senior middle blocker Alex Schmitt shared her coach’s view that while last season’s statistics may not indicate the Owls were stout defensively, they were able to hold their own.
“I think over the past couple years we’ve been a good defensive team, not necessarily in terms of blocking, but on the digging side of things,” Schmitt said.
In a fast-paced, up-tempo sport like volleyball, communicating about positioning on defense to avoid kills by the opposition is imperative. Schmitt said she feels the Owls seem to do a good job of this in between points.
“It’s just about talking to each other between plays, and on the sidelines, but I think we’re pretty good there,” Schmitt added.
Another important piece in the middle for Temple is 6-foot-3 junior Halle McCullough, a Colorado Springs, Colorado native who has noticed the team’s struggle to be able to block in years past.
“Blocking has been a little weak,” McCullough said. “We’ve always been a shorter team.”
However this season, with 10 of 16 players sporting heights of six feet or taller, Temple’s blocking should be improved. In addition, McCullough, like Schmitt, knows the Owls have communicate well on the court, which should help them defensively this season.
“Our defensive players are very loud and we’re a very trusting team,” McCullough said.
Transitioning from the Atlantic-10 Conference to The American would have been a lot harder without Gabriella Matautia.
Matautia, a right side hitter for four seasons with the Owls, was the team leader in kills last season and ranked third on the team in service aces, but graduated in May.
While Ganes called outside hitter Elyse Burkert another tough player to replace, he emphasized Matautia’s importance to his team a year ago.
“[Matautia] was clearly our best player last year and she was probably one of the best players in the conference,” Ganes said.
Filling her role won’t happen overnight, and for a roster that has 12 of 16 players with one year of game-experience or less with the Owls, Ganes stressed the importance of every player on the roster realizing that a single player will not be able to fill in as the team’s best immediately.
“I don’t think it’s fair to the young players to expect one to fill a role like that right away,” Ganes said. “Even with [Matautia] on the team, it was not all about [her].”
With only six upperclassmen on the roster, Ganes has made it clear that all five will have to step up regarding intangibles.
“They’re going to have to take on leadership positions and roles on the court, but also off the court as well,” he said.
Greg Frank can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @g_frank6.