In a strange year for everyone involved in college athletics, the volleyball program is no exception. Despite the circumstances, the 2021 season is finally underway. A sport that usually plays in the fall, volleyball was one of several that was shifted to the spring due to the pandemic. It had been 14 months since an Omaha team last took the court, but that wait is finally over.
Besides dealing with a little bit of snow and the COVID-19 protocols, not much has changed with the day-to-day training and game themselves. In some ways, Omaha Head Coach Matthew Buttermore said the schedule is actually a little bit more manageable this spring, but it’s all about making sure his players find a good balance. That’s been one of their biggest focuses during the past 10 months.
“Just the balance of how do we keep everybody engaged,” Buttermore said. “We didn’t know when we were going to play and we weren’t able to get our normal lifting and conditioning in together. Our big thing was making sure our kids were doing okay academically and mental health-wise and finding the right balance.
“There’s only so much you can do since we couldn’t really meet in-person, and a person can only take so much Zoom in one week. We had to get creative and wanted to make sure to keep everyone healthy and focused on what they needed to do.”
For the first time since Nov. 24, 2019, Omaha returned to the court last weekend as the Mavericks opened their season with a pair of non-conference contests. Creighton swept all three sets on Friday, but the Mavericks bounced back with a 3-1 home victory Saturday afternoon against Northern Iowa.
“I was happy with our intensity against Creighton and other than the first set against UNI, I thought we had a great intensity there too,” Buttermore said. “We needed to play a little better against Creighton to have a better chance to win though.
“I think there’s a couple things we didn’t do very well and we didn’t play well at the end of sets, but I think we cleaned that up against UNI. That’s a team that’s confident and they know how to win, so I think that’s a good win for our team going into a tough stretch of conference games.”
Sadie Limback had a match-high 15 kills and hit .419 in the win against the Panthers. McKenna Ruch was right behind her with 14 kills and nine digs against UNI. She recorded a double-double with 13 and 12 respectively against the Blue Jays.
Sami Clarkson had one of her own against UNI with 39 assists and 10 digs. Defensively, Claire Mountjoy led the Mavericks with 17 digs and was named the Summit League’s Defensive Player of the Week.
The Mavericks will open up Summit League play by traveling to Denver for the first two of 16 scheduled matches on the conference schedule. Omaha finished 2019 10-6 in Summit League play and made it all the way to the conference championship, where they fell to Denver. The Mavericks were picked third in this year’s Summit League preseason poll.
Take one look around the Omaha athletic department, and you can see how COVID-19 has already made an impact on the hockey team and both of the basketball programs. Buttermore knows there’s no guarantee how many of those 16 will take place, but it makes every night that much more important.
“Every match is really important because you don’t know what series is going to possibly get shut down or how many games you’re going to play,” he said. “If you lose one you should’ve won and don’t get the ability to play another game, that can affect your ability to qualify for the conference tournament. So every game is maybe even more important than a regular year.”
Along with the potential for cancellations, this season will also be a test of the depth on the Omaha roster with the potential for people to be out of the lineup on any given night. Every team throughout the country is dealing with it right now, so the Mavericks aren’t alone. At the same time, the head coach likes what he has to work with.
“We’ve got some pretty good depth at every spot, and with COVID, we know it’s an adjustment we might have to make,” Buttermore said. “We’re happy with our ability to be competitive and have other girls step in, but I really feel like we’re in a good spot. We have people in different classes at each position pushing for playing time, so really happy with how things are going.”
Omaha travels to Denver to face the Pioneers on Sunday and Monday afternoon. The Mavericks will return home the following weekend to take on UMKC twice at Baxter Arena. That series is set to start at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 7 and 6:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 8.