The Texas A&M volleyball team went unbeaten in its first tournament of the spring, splitting with Rice and then sweeping both TCU and Sam Houston State at the Rice Spring Tournament in Houston last Saturday.
After losing five seniors from last year’s team that went 19-12 and advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, Aggie head coach Laurie Corbelli used the tournament to experiment with a variety of lineups, having players compete at multiple positions throughout the three matches.
“We ran a 4-2, a 6-2 and a 5-1,” she said. “We rotated the libero every game. We rotated defensive specialists every game. We never showed the same group.
“One of my concerns going into the tournament was our ball control and passing, the first touch to our setter to initiate offense. That is an area where we graduated a lot of our talent and experience, and yet I found that what we have been doing in practice all spring is really carrying over in that regard. It was really pleasing to see that the passing and ball control were extraordinarily better than I expected.
“Blocking also was one of our highlights of the day, and our middle attack was very effective and had a lot of success in the middle.”
The Aggies opened the tournament with a come-from-behind first-set win against the Owls as middle blocker Shelby Sullivan served an ace to knot the score at 24-24, and middle blocker Jazzmin Babers followed with back-to-back kills to close out the set.
A&M fell behind early in the second and final set and was unable to recover as the more veteran Rice squad went on to earn a split with a 25-20 win.
“In that first match, there was a lot excitement and some nerves, especially for the first-time starters and with new roles for just about everybody,” Corbelli said. “I think our lack of experience showed a little bit as a unit when Rice put a lot of pressure on us with their fast attack. We missed a few assignments with blocking and defense in a rotation, and we got stuck in a rotation where we couldn’t finish. It was definitely noticeable that we were a little overly excited. We were overly nervous, and to settle in took us a while for sure, but I thought we did settle in eventually.”
Despite switching up the lineup and using different offensive and defensive schemes, A&M defeated TCU, 25-23, 25-22 in the second match of the day and then closed out the tournament with a convincing 25-14, 25-20 victory against Sam Houston State.
In addition to replacing last year’s senior-laden back row players, Corbelli is looking to fill the setting vacancy following the graduation of four-year starter Allie Sawatzky. Both Kaysie Shebeneck, a reserve setter who also saw limited action as a right-side hitter as a freshman last season, and January enrollee Stephanie Aiple shared the setting duties and were equally impressive.
“I thought the setters did a beautiful job,” Corbelli said. “Both setters played an equal number of sets, and they both even hit a lot as attackers. They are both so good and they both need to be out there on the court -- in the spring especially -- for everybody to experience and see what they do. Because we were constantly switching them, it was a little bit difficult for our offense to get into a good, solid rhythm or groove, but the setters did their best to spread the ball around evenly and distribute the ball consistently. For the most part they were able to do that, and overall I thought the setting was really, really good.”
The Aggies return to action Saturday at the F.A.S.T. Collegiate Invitational at the Reliant Center (Hall E) in Houston. A&M is slated to face former Big 12 Conference foes Baylor at 10 a.m., Texas at 1 p.m. and Oklahoma at 2 p.m. Matches will be best 2-out-of-3 sets.
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Rice Spring Tournament Results (two sets to 25 points, win by two):
Texas A&M vs. Rice, 26-24, 20-25
Texas A&M def. TCU, 25-23, 25-22
Texas A&M def. Sam Houston State, 25-14, 25-20