After a lackluster 5-24 campaign in 2017 which resulted in the firing of head coach Chris Muscat and his entire staff, new head coach Amanda Berkley and the Loyola women’s volleyball team (1-2) are starting the 2018 season with a new culture.
At the Samford Invitational August 24-25, Loyola fell to Kennesaw State 3-0 and Samford 3-1 on the first day, but closed out play with a 3-1 win over McNeese State on day two.
Berkley was hired at Loyola in December 2017 and said she has been working to rejuvenate the program with positivity ever since.
“[We’re] just trying to keep everything positive,” Berkley said. “We’ve been just talking a lot about working really hard and being positive and great teammates and just kind of getting our stamp on the program.”
In one offseason, Berkley has already left a mark on the players. Senior Gabi Maciagowski said the team feels more connected to their new coaching staff and are more excited about the game. She said they approach things with a “championship mentality” now.
“We always wanted to win, but there were times in the past where we kind of dreaded going into practice,” Maciagowski said. “Now it’s just a fun environment to be in and we really want to win and we really want to play.”
Sophomore Elle Van Grinsven said she’s been impressed with how smooth the transition has been.
“[Practices have] been so much fun,” Van Grinsven said. “Everyone’s smiling when we play now.”
Maciagowski and Van Grinsven are part of a wealth of experience returning for the Ramblers this season. Berkley is inheriting a team that didn’t lose a single player from last year’s squad.
Despite a series of nagging injuries, Maciagowski led the team in kills last season with 260 — she’s only 140 kills shy of the thousandth kill of her career. Second team All-Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) selection in her sophomore season, Maciagowski will anchor the Loyola attack and has her sights set on making first team All-MVC in her final season.
Van Grinsven is looking to build off her MVC All-Freshman team performance a year ago, in which she led the team with 77 blocks.
Berkley expects more this season from Senior Alex Nunez, last year’s digs leader, with 347, and redshirt junior Heather Kocken. Berkley viewed leadership as a weakness on last year’s team, but said now a handful of players, like Nunez, senior Morgan Gresham and junior Quinn Spieker, have stepped into that leadership role.
“I think we’ve got some really good options as leaders,” Berkley said.
Berkley said she’s most excited about the team’s defensive mentality, which she said will be noticeable from the stands.
“Right now they’re very scrappy, and I think they’re going to be a fun team to watch because they’re not going to let a ball fall without some type of effort,” Berkley said.
This isn’t Berkley’s first time taking over a rebuilding program. In her previous job at University of Southern Mississippi, she took over an 8-20 team and guided them to a 17-14 record in her first season in 2013. By 2016, they placed second in the Conference USA standings.
Now, she’s looking to bring a 5-24 Loyola team out from the bottom of the MVC standings.
“We had a rough season last year, so I think we’re just trying to be the best team we can be and build this culture up for this season and the future,” Nunez said.
Berkley said the expectation for the year is to give her team a chance in every match. Moving up in the standings and making the MVC Tournament for only the third time in school history is the goal. The team is on a mission to prove outside expectations wrong.
“[Opponents are] not going to really know what’s going to hit them, because they’re probably expecting just the same team as last season,” Van Grinsven said. “But we’re a totally different team.”
Loyola will return to Gentile Arena this weekend to host the Rambler Challenge. The team’s first match of the event is set for Aug. 31 at noon against Furman.