Photo by Russell Marwitz/True To The Cru/russellmarwitz.com
BELTON- The UMHB volleyball team has a target on its back entering the 2022 season.
Just last week, the Cru was picked to win the ASC. For several years now, UMHB has been amongst the league’s best, having won the ASC tournament title in the spring of 2021, and the regular season championship last fall, as they posted a 24-2 record.
With a winning tradition, the pressure to repeat as conference champions is always there for head coach Mark Pryor’s team, regardless of his roster turnover from year to year. For the past two seasons, the Cru was a team anchored by a number of experienced juniors and seniors, which greatly contributed to UMHB’s success. In 2022, that will not be as much of the case.
Five of the Cru’s top six point scorers from last year’s squad either graduated or retired from the sport, meaning that senior Hannah Frasca, junior Maddie Gillispie, and sophomore Alyssa Christiansen are the lone returners who played in more than 60 sets a year ago. According to a recent report from Robert Rochelle at d3vbwest.com, UMHB’s graduating seniors accounted for 45.2 percent of their points in 2021, and 78.4 percent of their solo blocks. And along with that, setter Alli Pierce, the ASC’s Setter of the Year in 2021, opted to end her collegiate career early. In translation, the Crusaders have plenty of spots to fill as the season opener nears on Sept. 1. But after a strong spring, Pryor is optimistic when it comes to his team’s potential, and particularly the potential of his talented freshmen and sophomores.
“We had our best spring that we have had since I have been here, so that really helped out replacing a lot of people,” Pryor said.
He added that sophomores Ella Brunson and Sydney Bowen, who saw their fair share of playing time last fall, made great strides at the setter position during spring workouts. That is notable considering the role a setter plays in a team’s success; everything flows through the setter, who must be able to read the opposing defense, put her teammates in position for kills, and distribute the ball from side to side, keeping things balanced and the opponent on its toes. Replacing Pierce will be no easy task.
“Ella Brunson and Sydney Bowen at setter and McKenna Cowsert at middle made massive strides in the spring on the court and in the weight room, so those positions of setter and one of the middles are already replaced. While they don’t have the game experience yet, they will be ready to go and we won’t miss out on much early on.”
The Cru gained immediate collegiate experience within their incoming recruiting class, as Kaylie Vasil joined the program from McMurry, where she played two seasons. An outside hitter, Vasil was McMurry’s leading scorer in 2021, and an All-ASC selection.
“With [Kaylie Vasil] transferring in, that was a huge upgrade to our pin positions,” Pryor said. “As a left or right side hitter who can play all 6 rotations, that is another player that really bloomed for us this past spring. She really embraced how we train and how we like to play, and she is going to really be a dynamic offensive weapon for us.”
Dynamic for sure, and along with Frasca, could form one of the best 1-2 offensive punches in the West Region. Frasca burst onto the scene as the ASC Tournament MVP in the spring of 2021, and came back last season with a team-leading 310 kills. She is only a junior, but is on a team without a senior, and is the only returner who started more than 20 matches last season.
“Hannah just has to be her… no more, no less,” Pryor said. “ We actually want her to take less swings this year, and with our incoming pin players, it should make it much easier for her to take less swings. We need that balance, instead of teams just sending 3 blockers her way all the time.”
UMHB plays a very regional schedule, venturing outside of the state just once, in the season finale against Hendrix College on Oct. 29. The Crusaders went 24-2 a year ago, but did not make the NCAA Tournament after losing the conference tournament title match to UT-Dallas. Despite the impressive record, UMHB was passed over for an at-large bid, in large part due to a weak strength of schedule, brought about due to certain Covid protocols still in play. Even without many of those limitations in 2022, Pryor opted to keep his team close to Belton, accepting that UMHB would move through the regular season with playing few, if any, regionally-ranked opponents in non-conference. As history has shown, the ASC is generally overlooked by the selection committee, meaning the path to the national tournament lies in winning the ASC tournament.
“The ASC has only gotten one team in the NCAA tournament each year since 2013,” Pryor said when asked about his scheduling decision. “We were 24-2 last year and didn’t get it in, and we had wins over other regionally ranked opponents.
“If it comes down to one weekend in November, it makes zero sense to travel all over, take the kids out of class more, when no matter whether we win or lose, it all comes down to one weekend. Until the conference gets a lot deeper, or the regional ranking committee realizes that the ASC has some solid teams, we are a one bid league.”
But even with that in mind, and the pressure that comes with being picked No. 1 in the conference, the focus is still on gaining enjoyment from the process of the season.
“I think that we just want the team to have fun,” Pryor noted. “When they play with joy and work on having fun while working hard, they realize the journey is more important than the destination.”