Last year the Owls left the Big 5 tournament sitting at 2-3 under first-year coach Bakeer Ganes.
This year the team is in a very different position at the same point of the season, with a record of 4-3 and the title of Big 5 tournament champions.
“I think our development is much, much better than it was last year at this point,” Ganes said. “I’m actually very satisfied with the progress that we have been making so far. Obviously, we still have a long way to go but I’m really satisfied with what we have accomplished so far.”
The Owls won the tournament with a 2-1 record, dropping one match to Villanova in five sets.
The 2011 tournament left the Owls with a clouded team identity. Ganes was working with a roster that featured only one senior, outside hitter Collin Wallace. The offense was young, with then sophomore outside hitters Gabriella Matautia and Elyse Burkert being fed by freshman setter Tiffany Connatser.
This year there are still plenty of new, young faces, but they aren’t being forced to learn on the run the way last year’s squad did.
“Every time you bring in new kids you have to spend a lot of time integrating them into the team, making sure the team chemistry is the way we want it,” Ganes said.
The offense has one year under its belt and senior libero Chelsea Tupuola, named Big 5 tournament MVP, leads a more polished defense.
“We did pride ourselves in our defense last year, but this year [Ganes] knew coming in that we were obviously going to be smaller,” Tupuola said. “But he focused a lot on preseason and defense and we’re a lot more confident.”
The extra year has led to more wins thus far, and individually, the team has improved.
Connatser is averaging 10.5 assists per set, up from 9.73 at this point last season. She also has eight aces thus far, after having just 19 all of last season.
Sophomore outside hitter Jennifer Iacobini is second among hitters with a .286 attack percentage and 33 kills. Last year she didn’t post 33 kills until Oct. 30 against Saint Louis.
Burkert is knocking down 4.29 kills per set thus far. She posted 274 kills in 87 sets while dealing with an injury early in the 2011 season.
Tupuola is outpacing last season’s mark of 4.25 digs per set. She’s currently recording 4.33 digs per set. Her 58 digs during the tournament helped secure the MVP award.
The team as a whole has improved in nearly every single category, with the only noticeable exception being serve-receive, where the team is averaging 1.4 errors per set compared to 1.1 last year.
“Compared to last year I think we’re further [along] with the offense, and we have multiple people who can score now,” Ganes said. “I think defensively we are much, much better than we were last year just because we really worked on the system we play.”
The team said they’ve embraced Ganes’ coaching and is now working to be able to exploit each other’s strengths on the court.
“We’re a lot more comfortable,” Tupuola said. “[Ganes] puts a whole amount of effort into our program, not just by coaching but doing little things, making sure that we get the best treatment we can.”
Connatser said she learned a lot from her freshman year and is now able to contribute more consistently.
“I know all of the girls better, I know all of their on-court tendencies,” Connatser said. “When I came in last year I knew how they played in practice, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to translate in a game.”
“I know who’s going to excel in which situations and how to put my hitters in the best situation possible for them,” she added.
Ganes admitted that the team is still a few years away from being at the level he wants them to be, especially with the move to the Big East less than a year away. But with a Big 5 tournament championship already under wraps, progress is being made.
Jake Adams can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @jakeadams520.