Atlantic 10 preview: volleyball begins league play among ‘the hunted’

Media Credit: Daniel Martinez Gonzalez | Hatchet Photographer

From left: Jordan Timmer, Aaliya Davidson, Maddy Doyle and Hanna Justesen wait for a ball to be served in the Colonials' win against Loyola (Md.) on Tuesday.

Who will hoist a trophy on the Smith Center hard court at the end of this volleyball season? It’s time to start finding out.

Volleyball begins conference play Friday at home against George Mason, setting off an Atlantic 10 season that will culminate in the league’s championship tournament in Foggy Bottom.

But besides playing host, GW wants to be playing for the title after losing to Dayton, on the Flyers’ home court, in the championship game last season.

“I think that we’ve put ourselves in a position where we’re a little bit of the hunted right now, so when anybody walks in here, especially knowing that the tournament is here, they want to feel comfortable in our gym. We can’t let them do that,” head coach Amanda Ault said.

The Colonials finished the non-conference season with a 10‒5 record. Chidima Osuchukwu has been the star and ranks first in the conference in blocks and second in kills, but Maggie Skjelbred and Jordan Timmer have added new dimensions to their games. Maddy Doyle, who is third in the league in digs, has helped the back line play with more confidence ‒ and fewer mistakes ‒ and freshmen like outside hitters Kelsey Clark and Hanna Justesen have added to the attack from the outside.

As the season moves along, the Colonials will have to focus on finishing out matches. GW is 5‒0 in three-setters but 4‒3 in four-setters and 1‒2 when going the distance.

“It’s just competing,” Ault said last weekend after GW’s final tournament of the non-conference season. “Competing from point one all the way through instead of getting a big lead and feeling a little comfortable, there should never be a time when you feel comfortable until the game is finished. We really need to push and drive all the way through.”

Well, let the games begin. Ault told the team after Tuesday’s win over Loyola (Md.), the last game before the A-10 opener, that they should feel like they’re back to “zero-zero.” Confidence and anticipation filled the locker room.

“I’m just excited to see what we bring and the competition and the competitive spirit that I know this team has,” Osuchukwu said. “I think it’s definitely going to show more in conference.”

Dayton is still the team to beat in the A-10, but with the upper echelon of the league being crowded, the potential is there for GW to have to play a lot of close matches.

The defending champs:
Dayton ranks fourth in the conference at 7‒5, but the Flyers have played two top-20 teams and beaten one of them when they blanked No. 20 Western Kentucky on Sept. 5. Standings aside, there is no indication that the Flyers are giving away their A-10 throne.

The Flyers have the defending Conference Player of the Year in senior Alaina Turner, Setter of the Year in sophomore Jane Emmenecker and Libero of the Year in senior Janna Krafka, which is, well, also most of the team. Plus, last year’s all-rookie selection Amber Erhahon has been phenomenal at middle-blocker. They’re also coached by last year’s Coach of the Year Tim Horsmon, who led them to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last season.

The Rams on a roll:
Rhode Island has the top record in the A-10 at 9‒3 and rides a seven-game winning streak into conference play. Their strength of schedule hasn’t been as good as GW’s, Dayton’s or Saint Louis’, but it seems the Rams do a bit of everything and avoid getting in their own way.

Opponents are hitting just 0.175 against the Rams, giving them the second-best opposing hitting percentage in the A-10. Juniors Layne Self and Franki Darnold are third and fourth in the league in hitting percentage (0.357) and kills per set (3.83), respectively.

The soft Billiken underbelly:
Saint Louis has the talent to beat any team in the A-10, but it may have a difficult matchup against GW. The Colonials, lead by Osuchukwu, are the best blocking team in the league at 2.53 per set. The Billikens are weak defensively, and ranking fifth in the conference in blocks at 2.12 per set and seventh in digs at 13.40.

They can, however, hit the ball. Saint Louis is third in the A-10 in hitting percentage and second in assists and kills. Both teams will be able to get on the attack. The key will be for the Colonials to be aggressive and try to block them.

The bottom line
These four teams were the top four picked in the preseason coaches poll, and they enter conference play stacked close together at the top of the standings. Osuchukwu and Turner consistently vie for the bragging rights as the league’s top player, but any one of these teams could win it all in the end. If a dark horse emerges expect it to be VCU or Duquesne, who have been good but erratic, but expect these front-runners to be the ones to be playing on championship weekend Sunday.

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