By the time Southern Utah University’s volleyball team begins the 2020-21 season against Dixie State University on Friday, 431 days will have passed since the T-Birds last took the court.
COVID-19 didn’t even exist when SUU fell 3-0 to Weber State in the first round of the Big Sky Conference tournament on Nov. 18, 2019. Now, the world has adapted to a new normal, one filled with masks, hand sanitizer and Zoom calls.
Head coach Pete Hoyer, like every coach across the world of collegiate athletics, will have to take on the challenge of leading his team during a pandemic, but luckily for SUU fans, adaptability has always been one of Hoyer’s strong suits.
In his second season at the helm, Hoyer led the T-Birds to their best record (15-16, 8-10) and first conference tournament appearance since 2015, despite losing his starting setter and libero early on.
Now in his third season, Hoyer will lead his team through a condensed, 17-match slate where all but Friday’s game against Dixie State will be played against Big Sky opponents.
In lieu of COVID-19, teams will play the same opponent in back-to-back matches during the 2020-21 season, taking place on Sundays and Mondays and will alternate between hosting and traveling each week. Fans should be familiar with this format, as it’s the same one the men’s and women’s basketball teams have navigated over the last few weeks.
Each team in the Big Sky will play 16 games over a span of nine weeks beginning on Jan. 24 with one week off built in. The T-Birds’ bye falls in the first week of conference play, so SUU will play 16 games in eight weeks starting on Jan. 31 against the University of Idaho.
SUU will face each team in the conference except for reigning champions Northern Colorado University and California State University, Sacramento. The T-Birds will play their first conference home game against the University of Montana on Feb. 7.
The Big Sky Conference Volleyball Championship will take place in Greeley, Colorado from March 31 to April 2 with the top eight teams in the conference competing for the bid in the NCAA Tournament.
In their annual preseason poll, the Big Sky coaches projected SUU to finish in ninth place in the conference.
The Building Blocks
Replacing American University transfer Shannon Webb, who was named Big Sky Newcomer of the Year and earned All-Conference Second Team honors, will be no small task for Hoyer and his team.
Webb finished the regular season second in the conference in kills, averaging 3.82 per set, and second in points with 462 total points, averaging 4.09 points per set.
SUU looked to Webb as the centerpiece of the team’s offense, and she finished No. 35 in the nation in attacks per set with 11.27.
Hoyer also leaned heavily on Janet Kalaniuvalu during his first season, and if that offensive strategy continues, senior Stacey Hone is the most well-equipped player on the roster to step into Webb’s role as the first option on offense.
Hone was also named to the Big Sky All-Conference Second Team in her first season at SUU after transferring from Snow College. She played opposite Webb (the only players to play in all 116 sets last season) and was second on the team with 368 total kills and a 3.30 kills per set average.
Standing at 6 feet, 1 inch tall, Hone surprises opponents with the sheer power of her attacks and is comfortable swinging from either side of the court.
Senior McKenzie Dowell will lead the effort to lock down the middle of the court after Katie Montgomery, the team’s leader in hitting percentage and blocks, transferred to Jacksonville State University following last season.
Reagan Ashby, who finished fourth on the team in blocks last year, is poised to build on an impressive freshman campaign this season.
Setters Corrin Peterson and Sadae Cintron both return after impressive performances last season. Peterson finished third in the Big Sky in assists per set and service aces per set after Alexis Averett went down with a shoulder injury.
Cintron performed well in SUU’s win over Utah State University early in the year, but was lost for the season after a knee injury against Saint Mary’s College.
Both Peterson and Cintron have shown that they can succeed at this level, and Hoyer can use them both situationally to mix up the offensive tempo.
Sophomore libero Sarah Gasper will act as the team’s defensive anchor after finishing in sixth place during conference play with 4.25 digs per set. Gasper will help replace the defensive production of Thea Leiataua, who led the team in digs with 387 as a senior.
Elisa Lago returns for her senior year after appearing in only 16 sets last season.
The Thunderbirds welcomed eight new players this offseason — tying them for the most newcomers on any team in the conference.
Snow College transfers Andreanna McKee and Bridget Triplett will look to build on the reputation of success former Badgers like Hone and Leiataua have already established at SUU. McKee should provide some offensive punch as an outside hitter, while Triplett patrols the net as a middle blocker.
Julie Castleman was named first team All-Conference for her performance at Fresno City College and will likely compete with McKee for a starting position, depending on whether Hoyer deploys Hone as an opposite hitter or on the outside.
Redshirt freshman Kayla Dowler technically isn’t a newcomer to the program, but she will bring a new element on the court after sitting out last year due to off-court health issues. Dowler was considered the pearl of last year’s recruiting class, and is a rock-solid passer who can play as an outside hitter or as a defensive specialist.
Saddleback College transfer Ronnie Robinson will provide depth as a defensive specialist and an outside hitter.
Hoyer brought in an exciting group of freshmen who should have every opportunity to make an impact this season, including Aleiya Cintron — younger sister of Sadae, Kayla Craft, Rachel Wieber and Abby Wucherer.
Who, Where, How to Watch
Southern Utah will begin the 2020-21 season against Dixie State University on Friday at 6:30 p.m. inside the America First Event Center. The match will be streamed live on PlutoTV channel 1055.
Story by: Connor Sanders
Photo by: Mitchell Quartz