The Southern Utah University women’s volleyball team started the season perfectly. The T-Birds travelled to Logan, Utah for the Utah State Invitational and went 3-0 against Xavier, Eastern Michigan and the hosts, Utah State.
The T-Birds headed to Logan as a team full of new faces and low expectations. They return as a confident bunch who knows their ceiling.
SUU only dropped two sets in the three games, and the T-Birds are off to their best start since 2015. That group started 4-0 after bossing Mississippi State’s Bulldog Invitational. Those Thunderbirds had a 9-4 record heading into Big Sky play, but finished the season just 15-15.
Finding a rhythm during a preseason tournament is completely different from conference play. SUU’s fast start may not result in a strong finish, but last weekend proved that head coach Pete Hoyer has the pieces needed to win.
Shannon Webb is the centerpiece. The American University transfer racked up 57 kills over the weekend. Webb seems like the focal point of Hoyer’s offense, much like Janet Kalaniuvalu was last season.
Kalaniuvalu transferred to Miami after leading the team in kills last season. Emma Mangum, who was second on the team in kills, transferred to Weber State. Miranda Canez, third in kills, transferred to Long Beach State. They combined for 859 kills last season. Coach Hoyer is tasked with replacing 7.82 kills per set in their absence.
Canez and Kalaniuvalu also played in every set last season. Kalaniuvalu finished sixth in the country in attacks per set and 49th in kills per set.
Webb will take the majority of Kalaniuvalu’s targets. The Aurora, Colorado native earned Big Sky Offensive Player of the Week for her performance in Logan. She’s a skilled player who made the NCAA tournament twice at American.
She is also one of the most decorated volleyball players to ever play in Cedar City. Webb earned All-America recognition from MaxPreps, PrepVolleyball and Volleyball Magazine coming out of high school. She was Colorado 5A player of the year, two-time all-state honoree and won Colorado Gatorade player of the year.
Webb deserves the sets she’ll receive. In close games, Hoyer will look to her for a point, and she’s talented enough to convert.
Setter Alexis Averett and libero Miahna Waters headline the returners. Averett finished seventh in the conference with 9.28 assists per set. She is the senior leader of the team and will be tasked with quarterbacking the offense.
Averett has an arsenal of fakes and dumps to manufacture points for Hoyer’s offense. Her performance will be critical to Webb and the rest of the hitters’ success.
Waters finished sixth in the conference with 4.66 digs per set. The 5’8” libero is very energetic and elevates her teammates with diving saves. Waters could stand to be more consistent, which should improve during her sophomore season.
Thea Leiatua starts as the other outside hitter. Leiataua picked up 23 kills in Logan. She is also the team’s most consistent non-libero passer as she leads the team with 40 digs.
Fellow Snow College transfer Stacey Hone will also play an important role. Hone is listed as an outside hitter, but spent some time as the opposite hitter in Logan. She is second on the team with 34 kills.
Sophomore Katie Montgomery is will start as middle hitter. Montgomery had 13 kills against Utah State and added nine blocks.
Junior McKenzie Dowell had the most kills of any returning T-Bird last season, but is making the transition to middle with Montgomery. Dowell will have to adjust to the timing and technique of the middle of the court. She had a good showing in Logan and lead the team with 14 blocks.
Sadae Cintron is Averett’s back up at setter, but is also very skilled. Cintron picked up 27 assists against Utah State and is a very good option off the bench.
Freshman outside/libero Sarah Gasper was the only other player to make an appearance during the tournament, and she specializes in defense. Gasper’s versatility in passing, setting and scoring will make her hard to keep off the court. Gasper played in all 16 sets in Logan.
Kayla Dowler, Elisa Lago, Paule Ceneac and Raegan Ashby may be called into action as reserves. Dowler was considered the gem of Hoyer’s 2019 recruiting class, but has yet to appear.
Hoyer’s squad is already halfway to their 2018 win total. The squad is full of fresh faces, but Webb and Hone played important minutes at other universities.
If SUU wants to keep the success going, they’ll need to continue to finish sets. SUU kept a lot of sets close last season, but they struggled to close teams out. If their performance in Logan is any indication, SUU should be able to score late.
Montgomery and Gasper will help alleviate the team’s service issues. The T-Birds finished second to last in the Big Sky last season and their impotence on serves proved costly in close sets. As the quality of their serves improve, more wins will come.
Losing Kalaniuvalu and Mangum could allow Averett to be more creative in her distribution. Webb will soak up a lot of attacks, but SUU has weapons all over the court. Webb is also more versatile than Kalaniuvalu and can use blocks and tips to score when those gaps open up.
It’s tough to translate how SUU’s early success will translate to conference play, but the building blocks are there. Hoyer and his staff will drill their team on service and late game performance.
Everything fell into place in Logan, and now Hoyer knows how well the team can play. Now it’s just a question of doing it against Big Sky competition.
SUU volleyball continues their season with the Thunderbird Classic at the America First Events Center. They face Saint Mary’s on Thursday, Sept. 5, Middle Tennessee State Friday, Sept. 6 and Boise State on Saturday, Sept. 7. All matches begin at 6:30 p.m. and will be broadcast on PlutoTV channel 536.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo courtesy of SUU Athletics Strategic Communication.