The Owls find themselves caught in the middle of an identity crisis.
With a 14–5 record and second place in the Atlantic 10 Conference, the volleyball team is in limbo between underdog status in the conference and a spot as a legitimate contender in every match, with aspirations of serious championship contention.
“I think throughout the season we’ve been thinking we’re a contender in every match even though the other team might see us as the underdog,” junior outside hitter Elyse Burkert said.
“The downfall of being the underdog is that they don’t take you seriously, at least at first,” junior outside hitter Gabriella Matautia said. “We’ve been showing [other teams] that that’s just not the case.”
Temple sits at 4–1 in the conference nearly one-third of the way into the A-10 season. Temple trails only Dayton, which it lost to on Sept. 29. Though second place in the conference doesn’t equate to underdog status, it was a mentality the team had early in the year.
“It’s great to be 4–1, but we really don’t want to change the approach we took from the beginning of the season,” coach Bakeer Ganes said. “We’re still looking from match to match.”
“Even though we had a good start and we had some good wins and we were able to compete with some of the teams we were not able to compete with in the past, we still have a long way to go if we want to get better,” Ganes added.
One of those “good wins” was against Xavier, which the Owls knocked off in upset fashion at home 3–2 on Sept. 28. It was an outcome that should have sent a message to the conference that Temple is no longer a joke, which is exactly how Dayton responded the next night, Ganes said.
“The way Dayton came out, it was definitely influenced by the performance we had against Xavier,” Ganes said. “Dayton came out with the mindset that they’re going to send a message to everybody in the conference, they’re going to send a message to us, because they know they can’t take us easy.”
“I imagine that the [opposing] coaching staff will tell the team that they cannot take us lightly [from now on],” Burkert said.
Temple opened the A-10 season with back-to-back wins against Rhode Island and Fordham before upsetting the Musketeers. Following the Dayton loss, the Owls recovered Friday, Oct. 5, at La Salle with a straight set victory as they tried to maintain the momentum they had before their first conference loss.
It’s a far cry from what the team went through last season when they were 2–3 at the same point. The Owls had the same slate of teams as well, but instead fell to Xavier in straight sets and Fordham in four.
The difference thus far has been a combination of improved play and confidence, Burkert said.
“I think our minds are right with that, that we’re confident but we don’t think we’re going to win every game without working really hard and playing a good game,” Burkert said.
A telling sign of that may have been the victory against the Explorers. While a straight-set win generally indicates a lopsided match, that wasn’t the case. Temple struggled on offense, hitting just .150 on the night. The team felt off, possibly due to being on the road for the first time in weeks and possibly from dealing with the loss to Dayton.
“We do have high expectations for ourselves,” Burkert said. “It’s a good sign for a team to win when they don’t have their best game, and that’s how it was in that game.”
Last season this same team may not have pulled off a victory, much less a sweep, playing their “B” or “C” game. And that’s where it helps to have an improved roster.
Temple has several individuals at or near the top of several categories in the A-10. Senior libero Chelsea Tupuola leads the conference with 5.40 digs per set, setting the tone for a defensive unit that has improved dramatically from last season.
Sophomore setter Tiffany Connatser sits in second with 11.34 assists per set. And the beneficiaries of those sets, Burkert (4.20 kills per set) and Matautia (3.78), sit in second and fourth in the conference, respectively.
“I think we need to focus on staying aggressive throughout the game, even when the blocks are big or maybe the sets aren’t quite right,” Burkert said of the duo’s approach the rest of the season. “We can’t ever become timid.”
The team is also second in the A-10 in aces per set with 1.48, with Matautia leading all individuals with .39 per set.
They aren’t overpowering teams, but as a unit they’ve proven they can hang with everyone in the conference. It puts the Owls in a position of making a deep run in the playoffs.
But for now this underdog-turned contender is focusing on another surging squad, Duquesne.
“We need to go in with the mindset of we need to prove that we deserve to be here, not we should just be here,” Matautia said.
“So moving forward we really need to be prepared, because we know nobody’s going to take us easily, hopefully, and nobody’s going to give us anything for free,” Ganes said.
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jakeadams520.