New attitude helps Robert Morris women’s volleyball close in on 1st NEC title since ’08
Entering spring workouts, the junior members of the Robert Morris women’s volleyball team saw a unique opportunity. With no seniors on the roster, their class, led by setter Whitney Brown and middle hitter Emma Granger, would be able to set the tone for the season.
The team had come up short of a Northeast Conference title in their first two seasons — RMU didn’t even qualify for the NEC Tournament last season — so the juniors decided a more business-like attitude was necessary.
“Our sophomore year, things just went into kind of a downward spiral,” Granger said, “and we just wanted to bring a winning culture back and bring hard work into our gym. It felt like sometimes we weren’t really working as hard as we should.”
Added Brown, an Avonworth graduate: “Volleyball is a sport where you need leaders, and I think as a class, we kind of took a stand and said this is the way it’s going to be. And I think everybody is super pleased with the results we’re having.”
While Pitt has made national headlines by ascending to the No. 2 spot in the country, the Colonials are having their own marquee season. Entering Friday’s home match against Central Connecticut State, they are 22-3, 12-0 in the NEC.
One more win secures the team’s first conference title since 2008 and would be the 300th win in the career of coach Dale Starr.
Robert Morris opened the season by winning 10 straight matches. They then lost three straight at the Youngstown State tournament but have won 12 in a row since.
The Colonials’ struggles with injuries have made their record that much more remarkable. Junior outside hitter Alyson Londot went down in the first match with an ACL injury, and fellow junior outside hitter Mirna Sarjanovic was felled by an ACL four matches later.
Starr had to change tactics, switching from a two-setter to a one-setter offense and shifting sophomore right-side hitter Alyssa Hudak to the left side. Lauren Kolenik, a sophomore outside hitter from Serra Catholic, stepped in to play a bigger role.
The Colonials haven’t missed a beat. They lead the NEC in hitting (.248), opponent hitting (.149), blocks (2.93 per set), aces (1.71) and digs (16.51).
“I envisioned having a good year, but I didn’t envision what we’re doing now.” Starr said. “We’re not making a lot of unforced errors. We haven’t stressed that any more than we have in the past. They just so happen to be executing it at a much higher level.”
With the Colonials’ shiny, new locker room at UPMC Events Center looking more like a MASH unit — they were down to nine healthy players at Wednesday’s practice because of additional bumps, bruises and illnesses — a full-strength Granger has been a welcome sight. Healthy for the first time in her tenure at Robert Morris, Granger is making her case as the NEC’s best player.
She leads the conference in hitting (.389), aces per set (0.56), total aces (49), blocks per set (1.53) and total blocks (133). She also ranks third in kills per set (3.30). Twice this season, she was named the NEC’s Player and Defensive Player of the Week — in the same week.
“I’ve been here 10 years, and I think I’ve seen that happen only two or three times before,” Starr said.
Said Granger: “I was able to work out as hard as I wanted to this summer, and that helped a lot. Being able to play and not worry about something hurting is great.”
Granger is getting plenty of help. Brown leads the NEC in assists per set (10.2). Sophomore defensive specialist Nikolette Zanolli is second in digs per set (4.75).
Maria Alfano, a junior middle hitter from Seneca Valley, contributes 2.76 kills per set, Hudak 2.58 kills per set and Kolenik 2.67 kills per set to go with 196 digs.
As the team has continued to win, Brown said the pressure has mounted to maintain such a high level of play. But she said the players’ new attitude and new mindset of looking at small milestones rather than the big picture has kept them from being overwhelmed.
“You should be enjoying yourself,” she said. “Sometimes when you sit down and say, ‘Oh, my gosh. Look what I have accomplished this season,’ it can be a little daunting. But talk to your friends, talk to your teammates a little bit, talk yourself off the ledge, and it just comes back to where you just love playing with your friends.”
The Colonials hope to secure the conference title this weekend during their final regular-season homestand. That would ease some pressure and, more importantly, allow them to focus on getting healthy.
A conference title would mean an NCAA Tournament berth and, potentially, a “home” game in Pittsburgh, with the Panthers likely to host first- and second-round matches.
Starr said he will take an NCAA berth no matter where the Colonials have to play. It would be the icing on what he believes could be a watershed season for the program.
“Seasons like this don’t come around very often, and you just try not to screw it up,” he said. “Every morning I wake up and say, ‘OK, just don’t do anything to screw it up.’ So far, so good.”
Chuck Curti is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chuck by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .