Women’s Indoor Volleyball players put their hands in for a pre-match huddle during the Pepperdine Asics Classic on Sept. 1-3, at Firestone Fieldhouse. The Waves begin their 2022 season with four preseason tournaments. Photos by Chloe Chan
There were a number of familiar sights and sounds echoing around Firestone Fieldhouse on Sept. 1. An impressive Waves win against No. 9 Baylor. A raucous home crowd. A ball hitting the Firestone ceiling. An upbeat soundtrack laid down by the DJ.
However, in the midst of the familiar, there was a new look to No. 24 Women’s Indoor Volleyball. Eight new faces joined the Waves roster this season, which lost numerous players in the offseason including standouts middle blocker Rosie Ballo and libero Madison Shields. More importantly, Head Coach Scott Wong said the mentality, the desire to be a remarkable volleyball program, hasn’t changed.
“The goal for us every year is to grow the program in every way,” Wong said. “With recruiting our players, how do we make them the best versions of themselves? And, it’s really fun to look back and see them growing as people and also as volleyball players.”
2021 Season Leaves a Bitter Taste
2021 wrapped up for the Waves in heartbreaking fashion. After going 22-5 overall, the Waves dropped their NCAA tournament first round match 3-1 to University of Central Florida on Dec. 3. While the season as a whole was a success, Wong said the loss stung.
“We had high goals, we did not meet them,” Wong said. “We succeeded with a lot of stuff that we talked about. So, yes, the loss to UCF was one moment of that year, but, that was a big moment. So, we were disappointed about that.”
After their first round NCAA tournament exit, the Waves entered their first “normal” offseason since before COVID-19. The NCAA pushed the 2020 season to spring 2021, which then led straight into the fall 2021 season.
When spring 2022 rolled around, Wong said the team relished the opportunity of more player development. The team focused mostly on defense, senior setter Isabel Zelaya said, and they’ve seen the benefits of their preparation early on in preseason.
“We’ve been really grinding on being a gritty team,” Zelaya said after the Waves’ 3-1 win against Baylor Sept. 1. “Defense, blocking, and getting balls up, and serving as well. I think we’ve been executing that, and that’s been helping us a ton in these games.”
Ballo and Shields, who played pivotal roles in the Waves’ success in previous seasons, were among 10 Waves to depart in the offseason. Shields won WCC Libero of the Year in 2020, and was named to the All-WCC Second Team in both 2020 and 2021.
Graduate student outside hitter Rachel Ahrens said the roster turnover posed a problem in the offseason.
“We lost a lot of people,” Ahrens said. “We had nine people in the offseason, so we had big roles to fill. But the freshmen have done a great job coming in and taking care of those jobs.”
Wong said the six freshmen, as well as graduate transfer Riley Patterson from University of Pacific and former beach volleyball player Cameron Baklenko, have stepped up to the challenge. With so much turnover up and down the lineup, Wong said some of those players will face the added pressure of starting spots.
“We do have high expectations,” Wong said. “But there’s room to make an error or two.”
Waves Primed for Strong 2022 Season
Pepperdine’s season began with the Ameritas Players Challenge tournament in Lincoln, Neb., the first of four weekend invitational tournaments. Pepperdine’s only loss came against No. 2 Nebraska, who were ranked No. 1 at the time, as the Waves took care of business against Tulsa 3-1 and Texas A&M – Corpus Christie 3-0.
The Pepperdine Asics Classic, held in Malibu from Sept. 1-3, saw the Waves defeat No. 9 Baylor, UC Santa Barbara and San Diego State, and drop only two sets in the process. Zelaya said while scheduling teams like Nebraska early on can be a challenge, it’s a great opportunity for the team to improve.
“We set up our preseason really big on purpose,” Zelaya said. “We know that we’re gonna do great this year and we wanted to challenge ourselves early, so that we’re ready for when we’re in season and in conference play.”
Sept. 8-9, Pepperdine traveled to Seattle to face Cal Poly, No. 13 University of Washington and Northwestern. The Waves tallied a 3-2 win against the Mustangs and a 3-1 against the Huskies, before being swept by the Wildcats.
The Waves fourth and final preseason tournament will be Sept. 15-16, in Minneapolis. Pepperdine takes on No. 3 Minnesota and Washington State, who sit just outside the top-25 in the AVCA Coaches poll.
Ahrens, now in her fifth season with the Waves, said playing top teams in the preseason is certainly a challenge, but it’s part of the team’s plan for growth.
“I think our preseason is the best that we’ve had in all the years I’ve been here,” Ahrens said. “We are so excited to be playing numerous top-25 teams. It’s a great opportunity to grow and learn from playing these teams.”
The latter has been a thorn in the Waves side in recent years. Wong said the date Feb. 24, 2021, sticks out in his memory — the Waves fell to BYU 3-2 at home in a thrilling contest, which ultimately determined the WCC Champions.
“That haunts me still,” Wong said of the match.
This season will be the Waves last chance to get in-conference revenge against the Cougars, as BYU is set to join the Big 12 Conference in the 2023 season. But whether they’re facing BYU, Nebraska or any opponent, Zelaya said the team’s attitude stays the same.
“Our energy right now is just, ‘Go!,’” Zelaya said. “There’s no ceiling for us; we’re just going to keep grinding and doing our best.”
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