Young volleyball team to be battle-tested early


Kent State’s volleyball team cheers each other on during the game against MAC opponent Ohio University on Thursday, Oct. 30, 2014.

Jimmy Miller

Growing up in the Mid-American Conference is no small task for incoming Kent State recruits, but coach Don Gromala said he’s already told his team that everyone will need to serve their roles for the Flashes to be successful.

The team features just three seniors and four juniors, but Gromala is fully prepared to offer his underclassmen starting roles, especially as he’s recruited with the mindset that most of his young players will see the court right away. Just last season, Gromala frequently played then-freshmen outside hitter Kelsey Bittinger, setter Brittney Jakscht and libero Challen Geraghty.

This transition won’t be an easy one for the Flashes, Gromala said, but it’ll be made effectively, especially after the team assembled for some spring indoor and sand volleyball tournaments and summer workouts.

“What I’ve heard from our support staff is that, especially in the weight room, it was probably one of our best offseasons…our goal is always to get better throughout an event or tournament or season, and we definitely did that (in the offseason),” Gromala said. “It’s going to be a small adjustment period for (the players), but I think we’re headed in a really good direction for the season.”

Following Kent State’s second-round exit in the Mid-American Conference Tournament in 2014, Gromala said the conference title is more up for grabs than ever in his four-year tenure with the team: Despite Ohio University’s pure dominance in the regular season — 23-4 overall, and a perfect 16-0 in the conference — the Bobcats dropped their semifinal tournament bout with Western Michigan, the No. 5 seed who went on to win the conference title. The year prior, No. 7 Eastern Michigan stunned the entire field of competitors by making the conference championship game before the Bobcats stomped the Eagles in straight sets.

“I think the last two conference tournaments are a good snapshot of what the MAC is all about,” Gromala said. “I think that the teams that have most recently been struggling have gotten better. From top to bottom, the conference is more competitive.”

Almost a perennial tradition at this point, Gromala said he expects the Bobcats to be one of the favorites to win the conference, taking into account they retained their star setter Abby Gilleland and their libero Meredith Ashy; however, Gromala added every team lost a big asset to their success from the year prior, as Ohio lost outside hitter Kelly Lamberti, so coaches will have to make changes around their new-look teams.

The Flashes will be no exception, especially after graduating their biggest offensive and defensive threats, Liz Reikow, a 6’6” middle blocker, and outside hitter Tinuke Aderemi-Ibitola, who led the team in kills. Gromala admits there’s no replacing that talent, particularly with Reikow’s size and ability up front at the net, but he hopes his roster’s depth will make up for it. 

“She was definitely a unique player with how mobile she was with someone at her height,” Gromala said. “That’s going to be our biggest challenge as a program is how to make up for (the block) defensively because other teams had to work around. Last year, the defense was the key to our victories…but we’ve got a lot of versatility, which is good. We’re not going to be a team that’s going to have one hitter that we set 60 percent of the balls to and hope she carries us.”

Gromala said the offense will be quicker this season, and the team will toy with defense schemes they couldn’t or didn’t need to implement last season, such as a 6-2 zone. Gromala also said who will play where on the court is still up in the air, but he expects Geraghty, Bittinger and senior middle blocker Bridget Wilhelm to all be starters come the team’s opener at the Maryland Invitational.

The Flashes don’t play a conference opponent until September 25, a home contest with the Miami RedHawks, but Gromala said the early slate of 15 non-conference matches will help the team prepare for conference play. Gromala said the Flashes have scheduled opponents similar to the strength of their own conference in years past, but this year’s onslaught of non-conference foes feature some teams that have been nationally ranked or made the NCAA Tournament in the last few seasons.

“Now this is our first non-conference segment where we’re going to stretch ourselves a little bit, and push ourselves and challenge ourselves,” Gromala said. “We’re playing a handful of teams that could finish, nationwide, in the top 100, top 50, top 25. The better teams you’ll play against, the better you’ll be.”

The Flashes play their first home matches at the Golden Flashes Classic, and are scheduled to take on Indiana State on Sept. 5.

Contact Jimmy Miller at [email protected].