The Loyola women’s volleyball team (3-3) has started this season with as much trouble as last season, giving fans a sense of deja vu.
The Ramblers dropped two of their first three matches last season before surging onto an 11-match winning streak, the longest since 2002. This season, Loyola is on a three-game winning streak after it lost its first three matches at the Northern Illinois University (NIU) Invitational Aug. 26-27, but won the next three at the Deacon Classic hosted by the University of Wake Forest.
Loyola’s lack of experience against strong power-five conference teams, such as the University of Iowa and DePaul University, led to its demise at the NIU Invitational. But the Ramblers came out as a different team the following weekend and won all three games at the Deacon Classic in Winston Salem, N.C. The team played with composure and took the last two games of the tournament in five sets each.
Senior outside hitter Morgan Reardon said the team is not concerned with the slow start, which she said is typical for a team trying to find its rhythm.
“Last year, we didn’t really get a gut check until [the] second half of conference,” said Reardon, a marketing major from Joliet, a southwest suburb of Chicago. “I think coming out and playing some tougher teams early is really going to benefit us going down the road. It’s not fun to lose, but it’s still making us better as a team towards the end of the year.”
Head coach Chris Muscat said the struggle of losing gives the team the opportunity to grow.
“Our goal is to [respond] well to adversity,” said Muscat. “I think we have to be placed in situations where adversity strikes more often … I think we are going to learn a lot about who we are and what we have the capability of being over the next two to three weeks.”
The team is young. Three first-year players were in the starting lineup for the first game. Veterans Maureen Carls, who led the team in blocks and block assists last season before graduating, and Caroline Holt, who transferred to Notre Dame for this fall, are gone.
Muscat said it takes time for a team to find its identity.
“We’re working through a few things. We’ve got a lot of newcomers,” Muscat said. “We have a pretty good idea of what [players’] strengths are coming into the season … Our goal is to make sure we … improve throughout the season. I think we’re starting off in a pretty good spot … given the youth that we have on our team.”
One of those newcomers is first-year setter Delilah Wolf, a native of Saint Paul, Minn., who earned a spot on the NIU Invitational all-tournament team. Wolf said she knows that although her personal success is important, the team needs to learn how to play together.
“Building relationships right away helps as a setter with your hitters; it helps them become better,” she said. “I think the mental aspect [is the biggest challenge]. We are all physically able and willing to do whatever it takes. But I think mentally, we aren’t all there for every single point.”
Despite the departures, the team still has leaders. Reardon, the offensive engine of the team, is back on the court for her final season. Reardon said she sees advantages to early-season challenges.
While the team searches for continuity, Reardon has stayed consistent. In a 3-1 loss to NIU, Reardon became the 14th player in Loyola volleyball history to record 1,000 kills in a career. Muscat said that Reardon isn’t concerned about that honor right now.
“Morgan’s had a great career here,” Muscat said. “I think her biggest [motivation] is she wants to see it be different at the end of the year. She wants to play in that last match of the year. And while it’s a great accomplishment for her … I think she’s pretty hungry for more. I think she’s more hungry for this team’s success than for her own individual accomplishment.”
With Reardon’s dominance and Wolf’s rise, Muscat said he believes the team has the right foundation of talent. Now it’s on the team to find the chemistry.
The Ramblers are scheduled to travel west to Manhattan, Kan., to participate in the Kansas State Invitational Sept. 9-10.