A year ago, the Eastern Oregon University volleyball team entered the season under a cloud of uncertainty, with nine newcomers and having graduated several seniors who were part of some of the program’s best postseason runs.
This year, the script is entirely different. EOU had a better-than-everybody-expected season that saw it go 25-9, share the Cascade Collegiate Conference title and reach the round of 16 at nationals.
And with the bulk of the roster returning for 2019 — including the top four attackers, top setter and four of the top five players in digs and blocks — expectations are among the highest the program has ever had.
“I’m excited to see what they can do, and they’re already pushing the envelope as far as how fast we’re (learning) stuff,” said head coach Kaki McLean-
Morehead, who enters her 13th season at the helm.
McLean-Morehead called it “night and day” where this team is at compared to a year ago, when the Mountaineers were basically starting at square one with the plethora of new players and really working on fundamentals.
With a lot of those pieces now in place, junior libero Kiley McMurtrey — who returned for another year despite graduating two years early — said the focus has changed.
“I feel like this year, it’s a focus on a lot of the little things — eye work on blocking and on defense, the little things you have to do in order to be successful and ensure you can win those long rallies,” she said.
There’s a lot of fine-tuning on offense as well, with McLean-Morehead saying the team is at a spot where learning to make small adjustments — getting, as she put it, “trickier” — will be important.
“At that elite level at the national tournament, everyone can hit a hole in the block. Our defenders have got to a point where they are now sitting in that hole, so we have to somehow work (on offense), on manipulating that hand a little bit so it doesn’t go straight in the hole, it goes to the left,” she said, giving an example of what the main attackers need to do.
The strength of the team a year ago — its floor defense — is already increasing, she added.
“Our floor defense has only gotten better since last year, which is huge because it was already good last year,” she said.
Reaching the level the team believes it can be at — competing for a national championship — will require digging deep, having what several players called a “fifth-set mentality” and “drawing the line.”
“That’s where your heart and grit come in and you say, ‘We gotta get it done,’” McMurtrey, who led EOU with 554 digs last fall, said. “Everything you have worked on in practice comes into play, but it’s very mental at that point.”
Senior Megan Bunn, who is coming off a historic season with 418 kills and 431 digs — the first 400-kill, 400-dig season in program history — called digging deep the main focus.
“We’ve talked a lot about really being a unit and taking control early in the game,” she said. “We (want) to make everything crisp, and we want everything at the beginning of a game to be good. Last year we had rough starts. This year we are going to make it a focus that we start strong and
Consistency is an area of growth Madison Pilon pointed to entering this fall. The junior setter, who last year led the Mountaineers with 607 assists, said the team had its great moments, but also had its struggles and lapses.
“The biggest thing I learned is not riding that emotional roller coaster or taking little two-point breaks. That two-point break turns into that 25-23 game where you lost that match because you took that two-point break. Consistency is a huge thing.”
She pointed specifically to the Mountaineers’ final home match last fall as one example etched in her mind — a five-set loss to rival College of Idaho on senior night where EOU won the first two sets but didn’t finish the match off. It was a loss that kept Eastern from winning the CCC outright.
“That burns a little bit,” she said, recalling the match.
Along with Bunn, who last year had the second-most kills in a season in program history, EOU returns its second-most prolific attacker in Hailee Ackerman, whose 388 kills in 2018 were fifth-most at EOU.
The senior said it’s important for the team to be on the same page and have chemistry, which she said, so far, Eastern is on point with this fall.
“The end goal is a national championship and we know that, and we all want that. To do that, we all have to have our grit and push to get those goals, push ourselves outside of the gym, in the weight room, eating healthy, making smart choices outside of volleyball,” she said. “That all encompasses one goal. Right now everyone is pushing themselves.”
Senior Taylor Tibbetts (203 kills, 107 blocks), sophomore Cambree Scott (130, 118) and junior Aspen Christiansen (310 digs) are among the returners who saw the most action a season ago. They’ll be joined by four freshmen, including Sade Williams and Brooke Dodge who are expected to contend for playing time immediately.
The head coach said she’s not certain yet if the team will run a 5-1 rotation (one setter) or a 6-2 (two setters), and that the early season matches will help to determine that.
The preseason, by the way, is chock-full of matchups that will show where EOU stands early. After opening this weekend with four matches in Florida, Eastern will face traditional Midwest powers Grand View, Iowa, and Hastings, Nebraska, on Aug. 23 and 24.
Grand View spent much of last season ranked No. 1 in the nation before finishing fifth, and Hastings defeated EOU in the 2016 quarterfinals on its way to a national title.
The Mountaineers’ first home contest is a rematch of last fall’s five-set thriller against College of Idaho on Sept. 12.