The Omaha volleyball team nearly made history last November competing in their first ever Summit League conference tournament in Denver.
The No. 3 seeded Mavericks opened the tournament with a sweep of Oral Roberts, then squeaked by Indiana University-Perdue University-Indianapolis 3-2, a Jaguar team they lost to twice during the regular season. All this effort set up a pivotal match-up against No. 1, and hometown favorite, Denver.
Omaha battled tough, but it wasn’t enough to prevent a Pioneer run of 10-2 which iced the fourth set, and runs of 6-1, and 6-2 that put away the final set. Three-straight set wins and the Pioneers were conference champions, headed to the program’s second-straight NCAA tournament.
The 2015 team had a lot of senior leadership, something Maverick volleyball has lacked the past few seasons. Unfortunately, six Mavericks played their final match for the Crimson and Black in November, and now head coach Rose Shires, in her 27th season, must find a way to replace several key components of their lineup from a year ago.
The Mavericks will lose several players that started, or played regularly in the lineup last year in middleblockers Megan Schmale and Amy Taylor as well as setter and right side hitter Michaela Schimmer. Kimberly Bailey, who played every match last season and the majority of the three seasons before that at the libero position, will also be missed. The Mavs also lose solid role players like outside hitter Kelley Wollak and another middle blocker, Diane Banderas.
Schmale has signed a professional contract with Haro Rioja Voley of Spain’s top pro league, and Kelley Wollak earned herself a professional tryout as a defensive specialist in Serbia.
Overall, coach Shires will have to find a way to replace a group of players that combined for 1,121 of the team’s 1,641 kills from last season. The six seniors averaged as a group a .303 attack percentage. The returners on this year’s roster averaged a .131 clip last year. As a team, the Mavericks averaged a .205 hitting percentage, led by Schmale, who also led the Summit League with a .336 hitting percentage. The Mavericks held opponents to a .179 clip last season.
The six graduates also accounted for a majority of the blocking and defensive game a year ago. The group amassed 74 percent of the Omaha blocks last year led by Schmale with 159 total, which also led the Summit League. This year’s roster comes in with just 135 total blocks from last year, led by junior setter Sydney O’Shaughnessy with 60.
Kimberly Bailey was the team leader and third overall in the conference last year in digs with 556, averaging 4.48 per set. Bailey’s leadership skills will be missed this season in the locker room, but the 2015 Summit League Defensive Player of the Year’s skills will be missed even more on the court.
The Mavericks will look towards new youngcomers early in the season to fill the void left by a solid group of seniors. The defensive game and offensive attacking will be key parts of Omaha’s game to watch early in the season.
The Mavericks return seasoned starters setter Sydney O’Shaughnessy and outside hitter Mackenzie Horkey. The junior duo each recorded a double-double in the conference championship match against Denver last November, Horkey with 18 kills and 19 digs and O’Shaughnessy with 55 assists and 17 digs. O’Shaughnessy was an all-conference member last season and led the Summit League last year in assists with 1,271, and was third in the league in aces with 36. She was also the first Maverick to record more than 20 (21) double-double performances in a single season since Amy McLeay had 20 in 2003. Horkey finished the season 10th in the conference in kills, and averaged 2.54 per set which was third-best for the Mavericks last year behind Wollak’s 3.10 and Schmale’s 2.65 average kills per set.
“This year we’re going to be a big pin-hitter with both the right side and outside with Mackenzie,” Shires said. “We’ll rely a lot on point scoring from those guys.”
Unfortunately, injuries have already claimed two Mavs who were looking to make big impacts this season. Gessica Gdowski went down with an ACL injury last spring, and on the first day of practice this summer, freshmen Chloe Dousette broke her foot and is expected to be out four to six weeks.
Gdowski saw significant playing time last fall after stepping in for Kelley Wollak, who ironically also went down with a season-ending ACL injury.
The 2016 team will feature just two seniors on the roster. Right side hitter Nicki Carson and outside hitter Elise Brown, who coach Shires said have been active leaders in this summer’s practices.
“Nicki Carson and Elise Brown are two seniors that are doing a great job of being very good verbal leaders, and leading by example,” Shires said. “We’re working hard with Nicki Carson and Meagan Roth to fill that role being the big blocker, but then also providing fire power.”
With an open-libero spot, middle blocking and right side hitter spots all left vacant, there’s no better time for incoming freshman and players already on the roster to step it up and begin making an impact in coach Shires’ rotation.
Freshmen Ashley Smith, an Iowa City, Iowa native, has impressed the coaching staff so far this pre-season. Coach Shires hinted last week that she is the front runner to replace Bailey at libero this fall.
The Mavs will look very young on the court this year, but that won’t slow down Shires, who’s experienced growing pains in the past and has been impressed by her younger crop of players’ talents so far in the preseason.
“They’re all making great gains, but I think you’re going to see a lot of freshmen in the starting lineup,” Shires said.
The Lady Mavs kick-off their season this weekend as they travel to Grand Forks, North Dakota where they will play in a tournament against North Dakota, UC Davis and Ole Miss before returning home the following weekend.