Volleyball began to see the fruits of its three-year-old system at play during its first tournament of the season this weekend.
The Colonials (2–1) opened the season with two wins in their first three games at the D.C. Challenge Friday and Saturday for the first time under head coach Sarah Bernson. Bernson said she and her coaching staff have been “strategic” about implementing her plans for the program since she joined in 2017, and the squad can focus on higher-level skills now that players have more practice under their belt.
“We didn’t just dump everything on them year one,” Bernson said. “This is the higher-level stuff. We’re taking the team on this journey, so they’re continuing to learn.”
The Colonials hosted American, Howard and Hartford at the Smith Center, losing 3–1 to the Eagles but cleanly sweeping the Bison and the Hawks to close their opening weekend.
Coaches emphasized blocking and service reception as two main areas for improvement this season, Bernson said. The Colonials showcased these practiced skills in tournament play, averaging 3.4 blocks per set and limiting their reception errors to 17 between the three games – 12 of which came in their loss to American.
Bernson said players showed improvements in blocking and service reception this weekend but need to hone in on kills. She added that the team has rarely been able to focus on one area to improve and historically needed to juggle multiple adjustments at once.
“They can keep the blocking and the serve receive and just focus on one more thing, which is a different place than we’ve been before,” Bernson said. “We’ve had to focus on so many things, now we can just add one more element, which just allows us to be more confident and comfortable.”
The Colonials finished the season 11–21 with a 6–8 conference record. The squad squeezed into the postseason as the No. 6 seed and opened Atlantic 10 Championship play with a 3–2 upset victory over No. 3 Saint Louis. The Colonials fell to No. 2 Dayton in the semifinals.
Bernson joined the program nearly two months before the start of the 2017 season. In her second season with the program, Bernson fostered a strong team bond and focused on reducing errors. But the team missed the postseason last year, posting a 5–9 record against conference foes and finishing the year 11–15.
Senior outside hitter Skylar Iott said the team needs to turn its attention toward securing kills to be successful throughout the season.
“Those things we really saw show up well in these matches,” Iott said. “One thing that we do need to execute a little bit better is getting kills, putting the ball to the floor and getting kills instead of extending rallies.”
The Colonials tallied 114 kills throughout their first three games, 19 fewer than their opponents. The team hit more efficiently than its competitors, swinging at a .208 clip compared to a .170 clip from its opponents.
Six players recorded double-digit kills in the tournament. Iott led the pack with 32 kills, followed by recent transfer and graduate student opposite hitter Paty Valle, who collected 23 kills.
Iott said the program emphasized blocking, service and passing during its preseason workouts and worked to solidify those skills throughout the tournament.
“Our serve has improved a wild amount since our first practice,” Iott said. “In the past years, we struggled a little bit with driving serves and getting them in and challenging our opponents, but I think this weekend it was probably our most consistent, that and blocking.”
Through the first three games of the 2018 season, GW committed six service errors per match. This season, the Colonials reduced their errors at the service line to five per match in their first three games.
Valle said the team’s opportunities to record blocks rely on the quality of its service. Last season, the squad committed 25 more service reception errors than its opponents and racked up 25.5 fewer blocks than its competitors. The Colonials’ 189 blocks ranked No. 6 in the A-10.
“Serve and blocking are connected,” Valle said. “When your serves are good, you have more chance to block.”
With 25 games remaining in the season, Iott said the team needs to continue believing in Bernson’s coaching tactics to turn in results.
“Just keeping with the processes that we’ve put in place, we are going to see the result we want later on when we need to,” Iott said. “Right now, we’re just pushing through and hopefully we’ll get some more wins along the way.”
The Colonials return to action Friday at Miami for the Hurricane Invitational. First serve is slated for 7:30 p.m.
Belle Long contributed reporting.