• Mon. Jun 17th, 2024

2023 NCAA volleyball semifinals: Spotlight is on freshmen


Jan 1, 2024 #Sports


TAMPA, Fla. — Ella Swindle’s assignment? Take over as starting setter for the defending national champion Texas volleyball team. Navigate a challenging schedule and help the Longhorns get back to the national semifinals. Oh, and do all that as a freshman. No pressure, right?

But Swindle has done it. And she isn’t the only rookie in the spotlight here at Amalie Arena on Thursday for the national semifinals (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) as Nebraska faces Pittsburgh, followed by Wisconsin vs. Texas.

The No. 1 overall seed Cornhuskers have four freshmen who get a lot of playing time, including second-team All-American Bergen Reilly at setter. Pittsburgh has the national freshman of the year in Olivia Babcock, a first-team All-American. She and fellow freshman Torrey Stafford (third-team All-American) are the Panthers’ top point scorers.

It’s not necessarily unusual to have successful freshmen in Division I volleyball. Stanford had four freshmen playing big roles on their 2016 national championship team (that group finished with three NCAA titles). Wisconsin doesn’t have a high-impact freshman this year, but went to the national championship match in 2013 behind then-rookie setter Lauren Carlini, who became one of the Badgers’ all-time greats.

Still, to have several freshmen nationwide make such an impact in the NCAA tournament stands out this season.

“This isn’t just a normal [thing] — at least it doesn’t feel that way to me,” Pitt coach Dan Fisher said. “It feels like there’s so many freshmen playing big roles on some of the top teams.”

Especially with two of them being setters, the quarterback position in volleyball that demands good decision-making and level-headedness. It also some degree of self-forgiveness by players who, by nature of their position, tend to be perfectionists.

“She’s not going to be perfect,” Texas coach Jerritt Elliott said of Swindle. “We’ll catch her when she falls.”

In fact, giving herself a mental break from the pursuit of perfection was part of Swindle’s growth this season. And when she had to be right on the money — with Texas needing to rally from down 2-1 and facing match point against Tennessee in the Elite Eight — Swindle nailed it.

“Trying to run the offense is a really daunting task to do,” Texas middle blocker Asjia O’Neal said. “She feels pressure to do all these incredible things. I think Ella and I have had really good feedback loop.”

The same can be said for Swindle and Big 12 player of the year Madisen Skinner. Skinner won a national championship with Kentucky and then another after transferring to Texas. Skinner and O’Neal are veteran first-team All-Americans. For them to show trust in the freshman setter was key to the Longhorns coming together after losing players like outside hitter Logan Eggleston and setter Saige Ka’aha’aina-Torres from their 2022 title team.

“They were always in her corner supporting her and just telling her that it was going to get to this point,” Elliott said. “They could have ruined her confidence early on, but they just were such good teammates and gave her a lot of good things to think about.”

In 2015, freshman outside hitter Mikaela Foecke was the volleyball championship’s most outstanding player in leading Nebraska to the NCAA title. But this year, there are four freshmen who have been critical to the Huskers’ 32-1 season.

Reilly settled in quickly at setter. Outside hitter Harper Murray and middle blocker Andi Jackson are second and third on the team in points scored. Libero/defensive specialist Laney Choboy is a 5-foot-3 bundle of nonstop energy in her court coverage.

John Cook, coach for four of Nebraska’s five national championships, has seemed almost blissful about how well the youngsters have played. When the Huskers drew a record-setting 92,003 fans on Aug. 30 at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Cook said he already knew this would be a special group.

Cook was asked if there are more freshmen these days who are better prepared for Division I volleyball. He said he thinks there are, and cited the experience the best players get in high-level club play from young ages and their time in national and international competitions.

Cook said no matter how big or small a town a player is from, if she can join a good club team it will make a big difference.

“Bergen is from Sioux Falls, South Dakota,” Cook said. “And I remember her club coach who started a club program up there — I’m going to say Bergen was probably in about third grade — and I went up there and helped him do his first clinic. Now he’s built this club program that can produce a player like her.

“You watch club volleyball now, there’s not just one or two teams that are dominating. There’s great teams all across the country. I think that’s really helped prepare them to transition to college.”

It also helps that some players graduate a semester early from high school so they can get acclimated to the college environment in the spring semester before their college careers begin in the fall.

The Huskers’ freshmen did that, as did Swindle, who said, “If I hadn’t, I think I would have been even more stressed out. I was definitely more prepared after going through spring volleyball workouts with them.”

The fact that Babcock and Stafford are playing so well for Pitt reflects not just freshman success, but also how the Panthers have moved up the recruiting ladder in recent years. Both players are from California, where there are many outstanding college teams. But they came to Pittsburgh, which is in its third consecutive national semifinals.

“The newcomers bring this vibrant liveliness and newness,” Pitt middle blocker Chiamaka Nwokolo, a fifth-year senior, said. “And the veterans bring this mature poise. It’s just a perfect mixture. We feed off of each other very well. I learn from them; they learn from us.”


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