An ability to frustrate opposing offenses will spark USM volleyball

It wasn’t just that they won more matches, it’s how they played during coach Amy Refenes’ first season as the University of Saint Mary volleyball team a fall ago.

Refenes, who came from NCAA D2 power Nebraska-Kearney where she was an assistant, injected a new level of expectation and performance and saw the Spires go 12-20 overall and 10-12 in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC), good enough for the league’s postseason tournament’s eighth seed.

Those improvements from seven to 12 overall wins was aided by playing 10 non-league matches compared to one the previous campaign, but the way the team played was also elevated and that approach has come home to roost this preseason. Refenes had to build that mindset in her first months at the Leavenworth university.

“It was a very productive offseason from the standpoint of establishing our expectations in the gym as far as work, effort, energy and commitment,” Refenes said. “We made a ton of improvement just by committing to what we are doing and raising the bar. It was really nice to see. I feel really comfortable (moving forward). The group we have is working like crazy, the energy is high, the motivation is there. They are a group I rarely have to get after and say ‘we need more,’ where last year, we had to say it often. They are raising expectations for new kids we are bringing in and are helping a ton too.

“We want to keep raising the ability of the players we have, especially in the front row.”

Refenes will get to see how the newest edition of the USM program looks when the Spires open the campaign in Marshall, Missouri, at the Missouri Valley Tournament. They will play twice on Friday, first against the hosts at 3 p.m. and then Cumberland University at 5 p.m. On Saturday, the Spires take on third-ranked Park University at 10 a.m. and Avila University at noon.

One thing the coach didn’t expect to go into 2017 without was three of her best players at the net.

USM lost two would-be starters on the front row for personal and academic reasons while sophomore Bianca Asheim is trying to fight back from injury and should be available at some point this season.

“That has taken a toll on us right now,” Refenes said. “We have those two players, we are a legit (conference contending team). From what I have seen from our feistiness, it’s hard to get a ball down on us. We are getting touches on a lot of things. Our ball control, serve-receive wise, is a little shaky, but I think we will be OK there.”

So without as many terminating options in attack, the Spires may have difficulty rewarding what could be a very good defense, by not being able to put points away quickly on the offensive end.

“We will be a nightmare to play against because we will have long rallies, five sets and a battle every time we play,” Refenes said. “The team has taken on the personality of ‘We’ve earned it now’ and I don’t think they will give up and quit. We were a defensive team technically last year, but we’d get to the 19th point and look at the back of our jerseys and they’d see ‘Saint Mary’ and be like ‘we aren’t supposed to win this game. We are trying to get past that mentally and I feel we have gotten past that.”

The setter position could see a few different faces as Refenes is toying with the idea of going with either a 6-2 or 5-1 offense because of a lack of height at the position and the team’s need for my size up front.

Sophomore Whitney Rock is back after playing the position much of 2016.

“She got better as the season went on,” Refenes said.

Senior middles Savannah Fillion and Kaitlynn Lanier could play big roles for the Spires’ push this season and help anchor the defense up front.

“We are hoping Kaitlynn is more productive by moving her to the middle,” Refenes said. “We are going to work heavily on tooling the block (on offense).”

The Spires’ pecking order will essentially be to score at the net behind the block, pick up points from the back row’s ability to keep balls in play and force opponent errors, serve well and then terminate in the attack when the opportunities arise.

It doesn't hurt when having the grittiest and highest energy defense Refenes has ever coached.

“I think we’ll be a momentum-building hitting team and that comes from being a defensive team,” Fillion said. “That builds up confidence – getting balls up – we will eventually get the players who put it down every time, I hope. We have smart hitters too, so we know how to place the ball.”

Fillion is happy with where the program has headed in her two years at USM since transferring in from Illinois Central College.

“Recruiting, we have a lot of good transfers and the freshmen are really taking leads in the preseason which is a big deal,” Fillion said. “Last year we were good, but we didn’t believe we were good. I wasn’t here (in 2015), but the girls said (Refenes) turned around the whole program, which is hard to do in a year. Our (offseason) really kicked my butt with 5 a.m. practices and being in the weight room 24-7. Hearing what we did last year compared to them not having any practices and having the second semester off was by far the biggest change.”

Even despite losing a few big boppers, if the team’s attitude and defense stays at an elite level and the block comes up big, it may only take one big hitter to push USM to greater heights this fall.

“If we can get our hitters going – I don’t think we’ll be fighting for a championship yet – but I think we’ll be in the top five,” Refenes said. “Defense can score and the other team can make mistakes. If we get two pin hitters hitting .250 we will be right up there (at the top).”