With a strong returning corps, volleyball shows confidence

Media Credit: Samuel Klein | Senior Photo Editor
Sophomore middle blocker Chidima Osuchukwu jumps to spike the ball during the Buff and Blue Scrimmage on Aug. 23. Osuchukwu, who was named to last season’s Atlantic 10 all-rookie team, will be an integral part of the Colonials’ rotation this season.

After the volleyball team spent most of last season searching for its identity, GW is looking to hit the ground running this fall as a more mature squad with more ambitious goals.

Struggling through a 5-10 start last year, the Colonials were tasked with quickly building team chemistry and acclimating seven talented but inexperienced newcomers to collegiate gameplay. GW managed to turn the season around at the start of conference play, making it to the second round of the Atlantic 10 tournament and finishing 16-14 overall (10-4 in A-10).

It was the Colonials’ first conference tournament appearance since 2011, and their first win in the tournament since 2008.

Unlike last summer, head coach Amanda Ault can breathe a bit easier this season knowing she will return with the team’s top two hitters, senior Kelsey Newman and sophomore Chidima Osuchukwu, sophomore setter Emily Clemens, junior setter Jordan Timmer and junior libero Maddy Doyle. Along with four additional returners, GW also adds four freshmen to the team.

“I love this group,” Ault said. “They work hard, they come in, they’re driven, they have a vision of what they want this season to be.”

During the annual Buff and Blue scrimmage Saturday, where Ault ran her team through a five-set match, switching rotations after every set, the fourth-year head coach said she likes what she sees from her team so far. But the final week of off-season workouts will be critical to push the team to where it needs to be.

“I’m seeing a lot of good things. I think the biggest thing right now is just [being] inconsistent,” Ault said. “We need to stay focused on, ‘OK, it’s not where we want it to be. We have a week left, we need to iron out some things and make things more crisp.’ It’s tough to get ready in three weeks, but I think that we are in a good spot, we just need to keep working hard and keep moving forward.”

Osuchukwu, who over the course of last season emerged as one of the top hitters in the A-10, said after plenty of trial and error that ultimately led to a winning season, the team is feeling optimistic.

“I think that this year we’re just very confident,” said Osuchukwu, who the A-10 named to its All-Rookie team last season.

Newman, who led the Colonials last season with a team-high 287 kills, echoed Osuchukwu, adding that the team also feels more comfortable this year knowing that, for the most part, team chemistry is already there. But GW still has some fundamental work to do before its season opener Friday against Arkansas State.

While the Colonials were able to outplay their opponents in many areas of the game last season, by the end of the year, GW had committed 96 more errors than the opposition. Now, they also have several holes to fill.

GW will be without two of last season’s top servers, Jamie Armstrong and Jessica Burr. Armstrong led the team last year with 24 service aces, averaging a team-high .30 service aces per set. Burr ranked second on the team with .25 aces per set.

With the losses of Armstrong and middle blocker Gabrial Rushton, Ault will have to determine who will back up Osuchukwu at the position. Ault said junior Maggie Skjelbred, who the team previously used as an outside hitter, transitioned into the middle-blocker role last spring. Ault said Skjelbred has been doing a “great job” at the position.

While Skjelbred is likely to fill the back-up role, Ault said freshman Emily Newell, who GW recruited as a middle blocker, is also progressing quickly in the preseason.

“Although we have some missing pieces [at the middle-blocker position], I think that that’s going to be a position that works really well for us anyways,” Ault said.

With momentum from last season’s accomplishments, the Colonials have set a high bar with their sights set on the A-10 Championship title, a feat the program hasn’t achieved since 2000.

The Preseason Coaches poll picked GW to finish fourth in the conference, a step up from the team’s No. 5 ranking last year. Still, this season’s selection didn’t sit well with the team.

“I think definitely last year we proved that we can go to the tournament and not only be in it, but we can advance to the next level,” Osuchukwu said.

Before they try to prove skeptics wrong in conference play, the Colonials will face a tough preseason schedule.

GW will compete against five non-conference opponents that finished the 2013 season with a higher RPI. The team’s first test should come Friday against Southeastern Conference member Auburn, which finished the 2013 season with an RPI of 65.

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