At nationals last year, The Master’s University women’s volleyball team learned what it would take to make a deep post-season run.
“I think it was a really eye-opening experience for us to see the level we need to elevate to if we want to be a national contender and get out of pool play,” said senior libero McKenna Hafner.
Now, as Master’s opens the 2019 volleyball season Wednesday at the Hope Summer Slam in Fullerton, the team must learn another lesson: how to play as the favorite – not the underdog.
The Mustangs began what turned out to be a groundbreaking 2018 campaign as a fourth-place team in the preseason Golden State Athletic Conference coaches’ poll. As it turned out, Master’s went on to win the program’s first GSAC regular season and tournament titles, placing a target firmly on the club’s back. Monday, the GSAC announced that Master’s had been picked by conference coaches as the top team.
“There is definitely extra pressure,” said junior Madi Fay (pictured above). “But I think these are the kind of girls that don’t fall back when that pressure is on them. This kind of pressure motivates us to play harder, and it makes it more exciting rather than making us timid or nervous.”
In addition to Fay, who was an All-GSAC pick at opposite hitter for the first time in her career in 2018, the Mustangs also return All-GSAC and NAIA All-American pick Jane Cisar, who made a nearly seamless transition from opposite hitter to middle blocker a year ago.
With a full season at her new position under her belt, it’s possible Cisar will prove to be even more of a problem for opponents as a senior.
In 2018, she was one of the country’s most utilized middles on the offensive attack, and she was pristinely efficient. Cisar compiled a .345 hitting percentage, highest in the GSAC and 15th best in the NAIA.
She was strong on defense, too. Her 139 total blocks were a program single-season record.
“I’m hoping that at this point I can really just infuse the more intellectual part of the game and create smarter plays and put the ball where it needs to be,” Cisar said. “I think consistency is the name of the game this year, and I’m hoping to progress in my hitting percentage as well as kills with the mindset of knowing what to do with the ball (in any situation).”
One of the biggest holes in the Mustangs’ volleyball roster entering the offseason appeared to be at the setter position. Kayla Sims, second on the program’s all-time assists ledger, had run out of eligibility, and no one with extensive collegiate setting experience was returning.
There was no need to fret.
TMU head coach Allan Vince signed community college transfer Katie Emmerling, and the junior has turned heads in preseason training.
“I like her athleticism and her aggressive play,” said Fay, who will split time at opposite hitter and setter as part of a 6-2 system. “She plays with an aggressive mindset. Not timid, but willing to do the harder set or do something uncomfortable in order to make the better play for the hitters.”
One of those hitters will be Regan Tate, a senior who compiled a career-high 255 kills last season, third most on the team behind Cisar and Fay.
Tate was one of the Mustangs’ key producers in one of their most important matches of the season, a 3-1 win over Westmont in the GSAC tournament title game. Tate recorded a match-high 16 kills, helping the Mustangs beat the Warriors for the second time in three matches and build momentum toward what was the program’s first NAIA nationals appearance since 2013.
Master’s went 0-3 in Sioux City, Iowa, falling short of advancing out of pool play. But, the Mustangs enter 2019 with a confidence they didn’t possess last season until after they opened the year on a nine-match winning streak.
“I think there’s a lot more confidence this year,” Fay said. “I think last year at the beginning we were getting into our groove and we went in not knowing what the season was going to look like because we had the season before that was really weak.”
The early portion of the Mustangs’ volleyball schedule, at least on paper, will be more difficult this season.
The increased level of competition should give players like Rebecca Swenning and Emilye Grace Williams at outside hitter; Emily Scott and Jessi Swenning at middle blocker; and Mackenzie Delo and Kinzi Lockhart at defensive specialist the opportunity to show what they can do.
— By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director