Above photo courtesy of the UMHB Athletics Department
BELTON, Texas- The UMHB volleyball team has proved unstoppable in the early part of this 2021 season, putting together seven wins, six of which came on the road, and having dropped just one set in the first two weeks of play.
That lone lost set came in the home opener on Friday night against ASC foe ETBU, who played the Crusaders in their third conference match of the season. The Tigers, taking advantage of 14 unforced errors by UMHB, took the opening set by a thin margin, 25-21, before the Cru responded by winning the next three to remain undefeated.
“We had 14 unforced errors in the first set,” UMHB head coach Mark Pryor said. “That’s just not like us. So if you’re going 25 points, and giving someone 14, they’re not having to earn a whole lot.”
Pryor added that with it being the home opener, “some nerves” were present early on, but during a quick meeting prior to the second set, he and his staff helped to reset the Crusaders’ focus, en route to a 25-16 win to tie the score at 1-1.
Said Pryor: “What we talked about [in the huddle before the second set] was, ‘take a deep breath, calm down, and let’s just make sure we understand who we are as a team.'”
The five opponents the Cru faced in Mississippi certainly understood who UMHB was after the visitors from Belton rolled through the competition two weeks ago, even sweeping 19th-ranked Birmingham-Southern. Sophomore hitter Hannah Frasca tallied 50 kills over the first five matches and senior hitter Kayla Janikula finished in the team-lead with 15.0 blocks. Setter Alli Pierce led the Cru in assists in all five matches.
The trio was again key in UMHB’s second ASC contest on Sept. 7 at Sul Ross State, as was Lauren Williams, who tallied a team-high 11 kills. The Crusaders got past the Lobos, though not without challenge in each set, winning 3-0 (25-19, 25-20, 25-21).
The trip to Alpine, Texas capped off a long six days of matches and travel for the Cru, as the team amassed over 1,800 miles, facing the ASC’s farthest program east (Belhaven) then farthest program west (Sul Ross).
“It was a lot of playing, a lot of travel, [but] they were able to push through,” Pryor said of his team. “For me, that was good to see. We were able to play some different people in Mississippi, get them some touches, some experience and put them in positions to be successful.”
That resiliency was evident in Friday’s final set, as the Cru took an early 13-8 lead before ETBU fought back to tie the score at 14. But that was as close as the Tigers got. UMHB neither gave up the lead, nor held back, going on a 11-4 run to close out the set and take the match 3-1.
It was a remarkable win for UMHB, and kept the undefeated record alive, but Pryor was clear that there is still work to be done. The serves were more conservative against ETBU than is typical from the Cru, and the blocking could be more aggressive. Offensive consistency is something that is cultivated over time.
“We’ve not seen a lot of aggressive blocking,” Pryor said when asked what he would like to see his team improve on. “I think if we do that, it’s really going to help us out. I think the other area is going to be offensive consistency, making sure we’re connecting with setters and hitters. That takes time. But if we can get that by two-thirds of the way through the season, heading into the conference tournament, that’s what matters.”
The 7-0 start has revealed the talent level of this team, and the Crusaders are backing up the No. 12 ranking from the AVCA, the No. 1 selection in the ASC Preseason poll. But with that comes each team’s best shot, each and every match.
“I’ve seen this before, in other years, when you’ve got a team that is talented, a team that has accomplished some things in the past ,” Pryor said of the near-perfect start. “Our biggest area for growth as a team this season is understanding how to deal with success, understanding that every team that plays us is going to give their absolute best. We need to embrace that challenge but also be grateful for that challenge. Because the better that we can be tested with everyone’s best, the better we’re going to be long term.”