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PREVIEW: Volleyball Looks to Bounce Back Against OLLU

PREVIEW: Volleyball Looks to Bounce Back Against OLLU

The Southwestern University Pirates volleyball team returns home looking to break a two-match losing streak, hosting the Our Lady of the Lake University Saints (10-1) on Wednesday at 6:00 p.m.

Southwestern leads the all-time series against the NAIA Red River Athletic Conference powerhouse 5-1, splitting the past two seasons with a home win in 2018 and a loss on the road in 2017. Both matches went the full five sets. 

All three of the Saints' leading scorers from last year's five-set match return while the Pirates' primary two attackers from that matchup are no longer on the team. Last year, the Saints' Tijana Kruta had 14 kills (.462), Bailei Hubbard had 19 kills (.390) and Natalie Fazio had 16 kills (.096) and 17 digs). 

Southwestern's Lauren Crabtree had nine kills (.185) and 13 digs while Ali Grona had 10 digs against the Saints. 

Pirates So Far

Southwestern opened conference play last weekend with a 3-1 record, defeating Schreiner (3-1), Centenary (3-0), and Dallas (3-0). The Pirates picked up the first set against No. 11-ranked Colorado College and fought hard through the next two before falling off the rails a little in the fourth and final set.

"All weekend, we played some of our cleanest volleyball match-to-match and set-to-set," Head Coach Don Flora said. "We had three quality wins and played Colorado College toe-to-toe and were even in the driver's seat at one point. We just need to learn how to finish."

With a young team still trying to acclimate itself to "The Pirate Way," the season has seemingly seen a different first year player step into the spotlight each week.

Outside Hitter Elleanna McGown carried most of the offensive burden through the season-opening Southwestern Fall Invitational, Middle Blocker Riley Brantley emerged the following week, and outside hitter Emma White opened up last weekend's SCAC Group A Divisional with career performances in back-to-back matches.

The key to the season isn't in the highlights, however. It's in the incremental improvement in the baseline of play that gives Southwestern hope to be a force in late October and November.

"Last weekend was a great step forward for us competing at a high level of execution and effort," Head Coach Don Flora said. "They're getting more comfortable with what they're seeing and understanding.

"Emma had one of her most complete weekends of the season. Serve receiving, defense, attacking, blocking, serving. It was a great sign of growth and she's getting better every match."

What to Watch vs. OLLU

The Saints are 10-1 this season, picking up a four-set win (25-16, 22-25, 25-23, 29-27) against Southwestern's SCAC rival Texas Lutheran University Bulldogs with 51 kills on a .246 hitting percentage. 

"Our Lady of the Lake is always a solid, athletic NAIA team," Flora said. "We need to make sure we play at ht highest level. Usually that means we have to block a little better because they're always a little higher and hit a little harder. They're always a good test for us."

Like Concordia, the Saints have a strong serve, ranking third in the NAIA in service aces per game (2.79), led by Natalie Fazio's 32, ranking fifth in the NAIA in aces per game. She had three against Texas Lutheran and was dialed in with seven against Texas College in the Saints' most recent match. 

They're led by junior Bailei Hubbard, a 5-foot-8 middle blocker from Helotes, Texas who is on pace to eclipse 1,000 kills with more than 300 in each of her first two seasons. She currently has 105 kills on the season, averaging 3.2 to per set.

Hubbard is flanked by seniors Fazio and Anyssa Rivera, who have 92 and 87 kills for a 2.5 and 2.4 per set average. 

To snap the current two-match losing streak on the second night of a back-to-back, the Pirates need to be sharp with their serve receive and set their block against a smaller but athletic and experienced OLLU front row.