Take a walk down 22nd Street past the Smith Center and you may notice a GW athletics mural across the windows in front of the ticket office. It would be impossible not to notice the image of volleyball senior middle blocker Chidima Osuchukwu, rising up to hit a ball, translucently plastered on the left side. Now head inside, down to the court. You’d see a banner advertising the Atlantic 10 Volleyball Championship, which will be held there in November.
Catch a glimpse of practice, and you’d see a group of players — including several who ranked in the top 50 nationally in statistical categories last season, including AVCA All-American Honorable Mention Osuchukwu — fit from a long preseason of two-a-day practices and motivated by a loss in the final game of the A-10 tournament. Make no mistake. This is the team’s year to win a championship.
“We fell short,” head coach Amanda Ault said. “It could have been against anybody and I think that’s more of our mission, is that we were at the finals, we were close, but it wasn’t good enough. And so that I know is our drive and our goal.”
Through Tuesday, the Colonials are at 1–3, but those three losses come at the hands of No. 11 Oregon, Michigan and Oakland. Michigan is getting votes for the AVCA Coaches Top 25 list and Oakland was an NCAA Tournament team last season.
The challenging non-conference schedule is purposeful, Ault said. The team’s overall record is unimportant compared to being in prime form for the A-10 schedule.
“This team wouldn’t have been ready a couple years ago and we kind of had a tough schedule a few years back, and we weren’t ready,” Ault said. “I feel like this team, knowing who we had coming back, the incoming kids too, this team was ready for it. So having the tournament at home at the end, we just wanted to make sure we were really getting tested in the preseason to get us ready for the A-10.”
Ault said that the lineups are still somewhat in flux, but there has been stability through the stacked beginning of the schedule. Osuchukwu, sophomore Auburn transfer Kristel Moor, seniors Maggie Skjelbred and Jordan Timmer, and freshmen Kelsey Clark and Hanna Justesen have started every game.
Timmer is the starting setter, while Moor has experience as a middle blocker but will likely line up on the right side with Osuchukwu and Skjelbred getting most of the reps at middle blocker. Clark, who posted her first collegiate double-double on Tuesday, and Justesen are outside hitters.
Ault said that depth means players could also play important roles off the bench. The biggest loss from last season is that of graduated outside hitter Kelsey Newman, a vibrant leader and an A-10 second-team selection in her final year at GW. The addition of the 6-foot-2 Moor is especially timely since Newman and fellow graduated senior Landon Garvick were two of four players on last year’s roster listed as 6 feet or taller.
Overall, the team is deeper due to five additions. Along with Clark, Justesen and Moor, freshmen Alexis Lete and Gillian Kane have joined the team. Lete is a middle blocker and will have time to develop given the team’s depth at the position, while Kane is a defensive specialist who is also awaiting her turn on the depth chart, but has versatility that may get her more minutes throughout the season.
“I feel like, if somebody gets in trouble, we’ve got somebody that can come in and affect the game,” Ault said.
The Colonials dominated their attacking game last season, racking up 13.8 kills per set to opponents’ 11.8. The offense was physical and well set up, GW also had a 0.360 assist percentage to opponents’ 0.313.
Errors were sometimes a problem, particularly in the service game and with ball handling. Ault said that the team’s depth, more balanced from player-to-player and potentially less reliant on a few stars, should settle them as long as they don’t get frazzled.
“Physically, we can go toe-to-toe with anybody,” Ault said. “It’s the mental part that we’ve got to make sure of, that we keep that confidence, that we keep that focus the whole way through the match.”
There are always upsets to be made and dark horses to be discovered, but the only team rivaling the Colonials on paper is Dayton. The Flyers took the A-10 Championship last season, beating the Colonials in four sets in the title game on their home court. This season, GW will be looking to return the favor.
Mark Eisenhauer contributed reporting.