Coaches always say they don’t put much stock in preseason rankings. But even so, it has to feel good to upset the preseason favorite.
Just ask Towson. The Tigers, which came in ranked fourth in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) preseason coaches poll, took down preseason No. 1 James Madison on Sunday. In James Madison’s gym, no less.
Towson now boasts a 12-2 overall record, 2-0 in conference, as they head into the second week of CAA play.
One of the Tigers’ strengths is experience—their starting lineup features four seniors and a junior libero, and all but two are returners from 2018’s starters—but head coach Don Metil points out that even though there aren’t many unfamiliar faces on the floor, something else is entirely new.
“If you listen to our starting lineup, you’ll hear ‘senior’ said a lot, but even our seniors are running an offense that we haven’t ran in the seven years that I’ve been here,” Metil said, referring to his choice to use a 5-1 instead of a 6-2. “In that regard a lot of things that we're doing, we’re doing for the first time, which is pretty pleasing to see the efficiency and the versatility that we have within that offense that we’re using for the first time.”
That versatility Metil spoke of has had a direct impact on the team’s win-loss record. Three of his starting attackers—sophomore outside Emily Jarome, senior opposite Olivia Finckel, and freshman middle Lydia Wiers—have already surpassed the triple-digit kills mark, while senior outside Annie Ertz is just one kill away from 100 and senior middle Silvia Grassini is two away with 98.
In the victory over James Madison, three players had double digit kills—Jarome, Wiers, and Ertz—while Finckel and Grassini added nine and seven, respectively.
Senior setter Marissa Wonder’s ability to run a balanced offense and give all five of her hitters opportunities to score makes it challenging for the opposing teams’ blockers and often results in the Towson attacker swinging against a single blocker.
Wonders has set in a 6-2 offense since arriving on campus in 2016 as a freshman, but this year, Metil saw something in her that showcased her ability to run the 5-1.
“We have a setter that is distributing the ball fairly evenly throughout all six rotations and she has a consistent delivery in regards to height, tempo and location, compared to the other setters that are in our program right now,” Metil said. “We felt that there was just a little too much of a drop off between staying in the 6-2 as opposed to the benefits of the 5-1 that we see right now.”
Taking the controls in a 5-1 had been a goal for Wonders all through her college career, but she wasn’t sure if she’d ever achieve it given the high quality of other setters in the Towson gym over the years.
“I was very happy,” Wonders said of her reaction to finding out she would get to run the 5-1. “When we ran a 6-2 and there’s always opposites and setters getting pulled to put others in, when you come off the court, it’s hard to stay as engaged as when you’re on the court. You kind of have to re-energize yourself every time you’re put back in the match. So it’s very beneficial for us to stay on the court the whole time because we never lose that energy.”
Of course, only a little over a month into the season, the Tigers are still fine-tuning their new offense. Metil said figuring out what to do when Wonders is in the front row and the team has just two hitters has been the major challenge. His middles continue to work on their attacks behind the setter as well.
“We’re learning how to control our opponents still in those two-hitter offense situations, rather than just being a ‘meat head’ and just swinging into a formed double block,” Metil said.
Outside Jarome leads Towson with 144 kills. Now a sophomore, the 2017-18 Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year, has stepped up her play following the graduation of 2018’s kills leader Jocelyn Kuilan.
“[Jarome’s a] totally different player from freshman campaign to sophomore year. She’s developed and blossomed into one of the best if not the best serve receive passer on our squad,” Metil said. “We’re really comfortable with her back there with our libero if we need to go into a two-person serve receive, even though we haven’t showcased that a lot this year, and just her ability to just attack with power. Against James Madison on Sunday, she was going up against kids that were probably block touching 9-6, 9-7, 9-8 and just going over top of them with ease.”
Jarome was named CAA Offensive Player of the Week on Sept. 23, but she’s not the only Tiger getting recognition from the conference: Freshman middle Wiers garnered the CAA Rookie of the Week honor on Monday after tallying 20 kills on 35 swings with just five errors to hit .429 in the Tigers first two conference matches.
“We knew that Lydia was going to have to come in and start, we just didn’t know to what caliber she would be able to play, and we’ve been definitely pleased with her all-around play, not just offensively, but defensively,” Metil said. “She’s a force up there. I think this is the first year since I’ve been here that we’ve had three plus athletes averaging more than one block per set, which is huge for our program because it definitely takes some stress off of our back row.”
“Lydia has done amazingly well. I can’t say enough about her, I think she’s fantastic,” Wonders added. “She has adjusted to the plays we run so quickly.”
And when offense alone isn’t getting it done, Metil calls upon members of what he calls the “Tiny Tiger Unit,” a small army of defensive specialists ready to enter the game and shore up serve receive and defense. Slightly less tiny Tiger Marija Tomaševic can go in for serve receive and attacking out of the back.
The pieces are all there, but Metil’s biggest challenge now is convincing a team that is 12-2 and upset the preseason favorite that there is still room to get better.
Case in point, Metil says he thinks his team probably should have beaten JMU in straight sets. At 23-all in the second, Towson’s side of the net made two errors: Jarome missed a serve and then Ertz was blocked.
“But for the team to respond the way they did, we really, really were in control of sets three and four from early on throughout the entire set,” Metil said. “I think we really made a statement to the league about what Towson volleyball is and what we can do.”
The Tigers will continue that mission to keep getting better and to prove themselves against top conference competition as they host two CAA matches this weekend. First, it’s Northeastern on Friday and then Hofstra, the reigning conference champion and team picked second in the preseason poll.
Hofstra’s lineup includes the CAA Preseason Player of theYear Laura Masciullo, a versatile hitter who sometimes plays left and other times plays right. The senior currently leads the Pride with 195 kills.
“Depending on where we see their athletes, we have game plans set up for a variety of situations,” Metil said, “which is one of the toughest things for us: we’re not just building one game plan to beat an opponent, we have two or three scouting reports ready and our athletes need to be able to draw on whatever one we need, depending on what lineup Hofstra uses and then implement that report to find success.”