Exit Interview: What Went Right and Wrong for SUU Volleyball

SUU Volleyball

I dare anyone in this world to look me in the eye and give me a reasonable explanation as to why Shannon Webb made the Big Sky All-Conference Second Team instead of the First.

How is a player who finished third in the conference in kills and points per set not considered among the top eight outside hitters in the conference?

Webb was the focal point of SUU head coach Pete Hoyer’s offense, and the American University transfer made a massive impact in her lone season as a T-Bird.

Sacramento State’s Sarah Davis was the only player in the conference with more attacks than Webb, which points to the trust that Hoyer had in her. Webb attempted 1,307 attacks this season, and that amount of volume dragged down her hitting percentage.

That high volume approach led Webb to finish with a .225 hitting percentage, compared to Davis’ .190 percentage. Davis made the first team. Davis attempted 1,711 attacks this season, so the voters saw the importance she held to her team as a reason to put her on the first team, but Webb’s importance to SUU seems to have cost her a spot on the first team.

She killed 25 sets against the University of Idaho, setting a school record for kills in a single contest. When close sets hung in the balance, Hoyer set Webb, and she made good on those chances. Her placement on the second team is a travesty and makes you wonder about how voting for these teams works.

Alright, I promise I won’t whine about Shannon Webb not making All-Conference First Team anymore. I know it probably only matters to me, but I want justice for one of the most versatile volleyball players SUU has ever seen.

SUU finished 15-15 in the regular season but fell in the first round of the Big Sky Conference Tournament to rivals Weber State.

It was a historic year for the T-Birds, tying their highest win total since 2010 and beginning the season with an impressive 5-0 start.

Snow College transfer Stacey Hone looked rock solid in her first season as a T-Bird, finishing seventh in the conference in kills per set. The Webb and Hone one-two punch and a breakout season from walk-on setter Corrin Peterson pushed SUU into the Big Sky Conference Tournament for the first time since 2015.

The team won nine more games in 2019 than in 2018 and picked up big home wins against Weber State and Montana State this season.

I know the coaches don’t want to talk about players that have come and gone, but losing the team’s three most productive players from 2018 (Janet Kalaniuvalu, Emma Mangum and Miranda Canez) while still finding a way to improve is quite the accomplishment for the Hoyers.

There’s justifiable excitement for the team’s future. While key players like Webb, Thea Leiataua and Alexis Averett have played their last games with the program, there’s plenty of young talent ready to step up and replace them.

Let’s look at what made the team so successful and how they can continue to build on their momentum as they look to the future.

The Good:

SUU had to roll with the punches this season and did a great job of adapting to the unexpected.

Averett came into 2019 as the team’s definite starting setter but injured her shoulder against Saint Mary’s early in the season.

Freshman Sadae Cintron was impressive in relief but suffered a season-ending knee injury four sets after Averett went down.

That left the entirety of the setting duties to Peterson, and she was a revelation. Peterson finished third in the conference in assists per set and fifth in service aces per set. There were growing pains early on, but she looked like a solid quarterback for the T-Birds as the season wore on.

Peterson benefitted from having Webb and Hone on the wings, but her ability to score on serves was invaluable. Cintron looked bright in 12 sets this season, and once she returns from injury, Hoyer will have some fun tools to work with in terms of distribution.

The T-Birds also lost their best defensive player in Miahna Waters, who left the team mid-season. Sarah Gasper and Thea Leiataua filled in honorably in her stead, especially given that Leiataua began the season as a starting outside hitter.

She had to adjust on the fly to playing a new position and finished first on the team in digs per set with 3.39.

The team added three exciting prospects in Abby Wucherer, Aleiya Cintron and Jackie Scrape for 2020. Kayla Dowler, the gem of last season’s recruiting class, did not play in 2019 due to illness, but Hoyer is optimistic about her return.

Katie Montgomery (Soph.) finished third in the Big Sky in hitting percentage and is lethal against single blocks. She should expect more sets to come her way next season.

Maddy Williams (Fr.) and Raegan Ashby (Fr.) both played valuable sets in 2019 and are slotted to play more significant roles in 2020. Their development will prove crucial in continuing this season’s leap forward.

Hoyer has proven himself as a coach, and the success of players like Sadae Cintron, Webb and Hone shows his ability to find talent via every available avenue.

The Bad:

Replacing Webb will prove very difficult. She was a swiss army knife scorer who could tip, spin and slam her way to scoring from uncomfortable positions.

Unless Hoyer can bring in another all-conference talent from another D-I in January as he did with Webb, the bulk of the offensive duties will fall to Hone, who isn’t quite as crafty.

Hone hits with a ton of power, but if she sees as many sets as Webb did, she’ll have to find more creative ways to score. I think she’s talented enough to carry the load, but if she’s the No. 1 option, she’ll have work to do this offseason.

Ideally, an incoming freshman, transfer or a player within the program would step into Webb’s position on the left because Hone is so lethal when attacking from right to left.

SUU struggled defensively. They finished with the third-worst opposing hitting percentage in the conference, which has a lot to do with finishing third-to-last in blocks per set.

Wucherer will help with her 6’0” frame, but the T-Birds got blocked a lot, too. They can’t expect to win conference titles while finishing near the bottom of the conference in blocks.

Montgomery led the team in blocks but didn’t crack the top ten in the conference. The T-Birds need to be more imposing at the net on both sides of the ball.

Winning on the road proved very difficult for the T-Birds. They finished 3-9 on the road this season, but were 8-4 at home. Translating home success at opposing arenas is a great challenge, especially in a conference where teams travel as much as the Big Sky.

I think if the team can find a way to replace Webb’s production and start to feel more comfortable on the road, there’s a legitimate chance they can contend with Northern Colorado and Weber State at the top of the conference, but those are no small tasks.

Again, I don’t want to talk too much about previous players, but I can’t help but wonder how the team might have looked with Emma Mangum as a middle blocker or Janet Kalaniuvalu opposite Webb.

I know it probably wouldn’t have worked, but this team felt like it was just one or two hitters away from seriously contending for a conference title. Still, that doesn’t mean that they can’t make the next leap from finishing seventh in the conference to third or even higher next season.

The team has a bright future and, assuming everyone sticks around, they’ll be good again in 2020.

Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz