Heading into last weekend’s Temple Invitational, second-year coach Bakeer Ganes felt like he was going to find out just what kind of team he had by the time the tournament was finished.
As the weekend concluded, he found out he had tournament champions.
The Owls completed a 3–1 victory against Central Connecticut State University, a 3–0 defeat of Navy and a 3–0 win against Cornell on their way to winning the tournament and improving to 10–4 on the year.
“I’m really proud of this team because they really, really went out and tried to execute what we ask them to do,” Ganes said.
During his tenure at Temple, Ganes has preached that rebuilding the program to an elite level would take several years. But if the Owls proved anything Saturday night as they closed out their home tournament, it’s that maybe they’re too impatient to wait that long.
“Just seeing how we’ve progressed each game, each single tournament, and [Ganes] said we’ve gotten better every single game, it’s just a huge accomplishment for all of us,” senior libero Chelsea Tupuola said.
Fellow senior outside hitter Jingyu Zhang said that the seniors are happy things are moving along faster than expected.
“[Tupuola] and I feel like we have to do our best to go to [the Atlantic 10 Conference playoffs], leave something for [the team],” Zhang said.
Ganes said that he feels the team is ahead of schedule.
“I think just to look at it, when you take a step back at the progress we made, I think we’re definitely ahead of time,” Ganes said. “If I would be honest, I’m a little bit surprised that we are already here.”
With one year of training a young team and teaching his second recruiting class, Ganes said he has most, if not all, of the pieces he desires for the kind of team he wants.
“I think a coach once told me you can’t expect to build a Mercedes if you have the parts for a Kia, and that’s how you look at it building a team,” Ganes said. “Plus the kids we’ve had for over a year now, they’ve really gotten better at what they’re doing.”
His parts include sophomore setter Tiffany Connatser and junior outside hitters Elyse Burkert and Gabriella Matautia. Burkert tallied 36 kills during the weekend and Matautia took over against Cornell, placing 20 kills in the final match.
But the standout has been Tupuola, with her 4.86 digs per set placing near the top of the conference. Ganes has said all season that she is the team’s unsung hero.
Recently, Tupuola has been finding it tough to fly under the radar. She was named Big 5 Tournament MVP and made the Miami (OH) Invitational All-Tournament Second Team in consecutive weeks. If that wasn’t enough she followed that up with “Best Libero” award and Tournament MVP at home.
“I’m blessed to have these awards, honestly,” Tupuola said. “I honestly didn’t think I was going to get MVP [this weekend]. I know my job is being done if we win, and it’s very, very humbling getting these awards.”
With the Temple Invitational complete, their second tournament victory in three weeks, the Owls have proven that their chemistry is much stronger. But Ganes said the team has to prove again what they’re capable of in a tough conference, beginning with Rhode Island and Fordham this weekend.
“Not to put any pressure on myself or the program, but I think what matters is the conference,” Ganes said. “So we really have to go out and prove ourselves over again.”
If the Owls of late show up in the A-10 season, Tupuola said she’s confident with her team moving forward.
“We’re all very trusting right now, and going into the A-10 season it’s going to be a huge deal knowing that I have everybody’s back, everybody has my back,” Tupuola said.
Jake Adams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @JakeAdams520.