With three first-year players in the starting lineup, the Loyola women’s volleyball team (9-6, 2-0) is putting its faith in the young core.
Last year, the Ramblers had only one first-year player on the roster. Loyola head coach Amanda Berkley said the seven first-year players on this year’s roster will prove to be a turning point for the organization thanks to the young talent.
During the Rambler Challenge — a two-day tournament hosted by Loyola at Gentile Arena Sept. 6-7 — Berkley integrated three first-year players into the starting lineup: outside hitter Addie Barnes, setter Katie Mather and middle hitter Taylor Venuto.
“[The first-years] have done a great job,” Berkley said. “I think they’ve come in and they’ve stepped up our level of play. They are kind of fearless, too. They’ve come in and they haven’t played like freshmen either, they’re just ready to go and want to win and compete.”
Barnes, 18, led the team with 17 kills in the Ramblers’ loss to Western Michigan University Sept. 7 and recorded 11 kills in a 3-0 sweep of Montana State University Sept. 6. Mather led the team in assists with 24 against Montana State, while Venuto also recorded eight kills and three blocks in the same game.
Being promoted to the starting lineup came with its fair share of difficulties for Barnes. The Wisconsin native said playing Division I-level competition every day can be intimidating at first. But as the season progressed, she said her confidence grew and she said she’s more prepared to take on the role of a starter.
“All teams are good and are hard to play against but our coaches have trained us nicely,” Barnes said. “I think the transition [to college] has been good. The coaches have helped find me a different way to play at this level.”
Venuto, 18, has quickly accepted her role as one of the offensive centerpieces. As of Oct. 1, the marketing major currently has the second-most total kills on the team with 152, only behind Barnes with 158.
“I think having seven seniors, seven freshmen and a couple in between, was kind of a weird mix [at first], but we’ve all been gelling really nicely.”
— Addie Barnes, first-year outside hitter
Prior to her arrival at Loyola, Venuto said her work with her previous club volleyball team in her hometown of Whitmore Lake, Michigan helped prepare her for the college game.
“We work with our setters a lot since I’m a middle hitter, so I get to work on my connections with them a little more,” Venuto said. “I had a really good club team last year and I worked really hard on that team.”
As of Oct. 1, Mather is leading the Ramblers with 7.73 assists per set. With this level of play, Mather had an immediate impact on the team which she said was largely due to increased intensity in games and practices
“There was definitely an increase in competition,” Mather said. “[But] it’s not just their side increasing [in talent], it’s our side increasing, too. … I’m also [getting] to the level I should be playing at.”
Berkley said the entire Loyola coaching staff is hoping the young core of players in the starting lineup will continue to grow together as the season goes on. Berkley said this progression is natural and it’s important for the core of the team to remain intact as they advance through the season.
“We can progress well, I think all of these matches in the beginning of the season [have] been really good for us even just figuring out a lineup and learning to play together,” Berkley said. “Hopefully, we’re going to continue to progress as the season goes on.”
Barnes said the team has gotten more competitive in practice due to the increase in young talent. With the addition of Mather and Venuto to the starting lineup, she said practices have gotten more intense and productive.
“I think having seven seniors, seven freshmen and a couple in between, was kind of a weird mix [at first], but we’ve all been gelling really nicely,” Barnes said. “Having some fresh bones come in, the competitiveness between each other has really picked up our competitiveness in the game.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to continue their season against Indiana State University Oct. 4. First serve is scheduled for 5 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on ESPN+.