Editor’s Note: Above image provided by the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- UMHB volleyball head coach Mark Pryor has plenty of reasons to be consider his squad ‘ready to play’ heading into this spring campaign, which begins Tuesday at Howard Payne.
Whether that be because his freshmen have had an entire semester to practice and get acquainted with the program, because last season the Cru posted a 24-8 record, or for the simple fact that his team has gone over a year without playing another opponent, the bottom line is that UMHB has been prepared for gameday for quite some time.
“We’ve come to the fact that, no matter what you feel about us not being able to play in the fall, we get a chance to play in the spring,” said Pryor. “The kids are ready to play somebody other than themselves.”
That goes without saying. UMHB did not play a single match during the year 2020, so when the Crusaders take the court on Tuesday for two matches against HPU, it will have been 458 days since the Cru played another opponent. Let that sink in for a second.
It is understandable why there is so much excitement surrounding this spring season, even without a NCAA tournament berth on the line, as the NCAA canceled all fall sport championships back in August. The American Southwest Conference (ASC) will still host a tournament April 9-10, as the Cru will attempt to earn its third ASC title in program history.
This year’s team certainly has the capability to find that level of success, though it will be made up of several underclassmen, considering three of last year’s six-rotation players graduated.
Considering the inexperience on his team, Pryor has tried to put a ‘positive spin’ on the spring season, and feels that his team, perhaps more than any other in the conferenence, will benefit from this unique season setup.
“With as young as we are, it’s a really good thing to have all of our freshmen here, to be with this great staff all fall and to get a semester of college under their belt before we start playing,” said Pryor. ” Usually those kids will come in and they’ve got two weeks, and all of a sudden matches start. So with as young as we’re going to be this year, this may have benefited us more than most teams because we knew it was going to be a transitional year.”
While freshmen might compose 40 percent of this year’s team, the returners have and continue to step into leadership roles. Junior middle hitter Kayla Janikula was third on the team in kills (247) in 2019 and played all but one match that season (117). Pryor noted that she has become one of the players the rest of the team looks to for direction, and leads by example.
“Kayla Janikula is really the one that has set the tone in practice,” said Pryor. “She started to do that towards the end of the ’19 season, and in the spring of 2020 before everything got shut down. She was leading, and it has really gotten to a point where a lot of the team looks to her. She gets it, she leads by example, and is one of the hardest-working kids there is. There is no ego with her, it is all about the team.”
That is a quality that can been seen across the entire 20-player roster, and is most evident in the assists column, as UMHB ranked second in the league in assists per game (12.25), a season ago.
Joining Janikula as an experienced returner is senior outside hitter Corinne Novak, who has shown her strengths on offense in recent seasons, with 301 kills in 2019.
“I expect her to be able to produce offensively,” said Pryor. “I think she’s really improved as a blocker, so that’s going to be really good to see.”
Both Janikula and Novak earned spots on the ASC’s Preseason Watch List.
Juniors Mattison Doffitt and Lauren Williams will “find the floor somewhere” according to Pryor, as they bring experience to the lineup.
“I think if we’ve got that good mix of some kids with a decent amount of experience and then not having a lot of younger kids on the floor immediately, I think that will be our best opportunity to have success in this season,” said Pryor.
The schedule features two matches a day on gamedays, as the Cru will face each opponent twice in this conference-only slate. Following the season opener against HPU, the Cru will play its first home matches of the 2021 spring schedule, hosting McMurry on February 17 at 5 and 7 p.m. CT. In the 18-match schedule, the Cru will play its final four contests in Belton, hosting Concordia (TX) and Howard Payne eight days apart, on March 23 and March 31, respectively.
For some teams, playing matches back-to-back could be an issue, but Pryor has confidence that it will not phase his squad.
“Our schedule last year had six to seven days of competition where we were playing twice in one day,” said Pryor. “What the conference has done is if the first match is a three-set sweep, we only do 30 minutes in between. If it’s four sets, we do 45 minutes, if it’s five, we do an hour. These kids are actually used to it. Like I said, playing club, they would play back-to-back, and play all day. For us, it basically means that the day after, practice might be a little lighter, but we’re still going to practice hard the day before. We don’t see it as much of an issue. If you’re in shape, it actually might be helpful.”
Picked to win the West Division in the ASC Preseason Poll, UMHB will also have a shot at hosting the conference tournament, as it will be played over the course of two days at home court of the West’s No. 1 seed, on April 9-10.
The Cru have high expectations heading into the spring, but after 458 days without an official match, the goal is to go play, and enjoy playing. The winning will come.
“We’ve tried to a positive spin on it,” said Pryor. “We get to play, you guys get more time to train, you get more time to be a college kid, and hopefully it will work out in our favor.”