New coach, new season, no problem as volleyball enters home opener

Isabella Schreck, Sports Editor

A rebuilding year doesn’t sound bad to Haley Eckerman.

Her volleyball team starts this year predicted to finish third in the Mid-American Conference. But Kent’s new head coach is not fazed.

“It’s good for us,” said Eckerman, a four-time volleyball All-American. “So many people are basing it off last season and thinking this is a rebuilding year, and usually rebuilding years aren’t great years. For us, it really isn’t that much of a change. It helps us have that chip on our shoulder, but not in a bad way. It allows us to go in and put targets on other peoples’ backs.”

Eckerman replaced 10-year head coach Don Gromala in March. Last year, Kent State finished third in the MAC East and ended 12-18 overall. The Flashes failed to make the league tournament.

This season, Bowling Green is picked to finish first in the MAC East in the 2022 MAC preseason coaches poll. Ohio places one spot ahead of KSU.

Two players from last season transferred to different college teams, and one ran out of eligibility. The rest of the roster returns. Eckerman had only a two-week preseason to mesh her veterans with five rookie players. She had never even seen some of her freshman play before.

“It’s frustrating because we don’t get the players in the summer like basketball, football and women’s basketball,” Eckerman said. “The biggest thing was trying to get to know everybody a little bit more and figuring out what our weaknesses were as a team and how we can build on that and then working on the statistics of who is going to play.”

This transition also proved to be challenging for the KSU’s top returning spiker.

“It’s very different from last year,” outside hitter Savannah Matthews said. “It’s been the hardest preseason I’ve had, but in the best way. It’s all pushing me mentally to places I didn’t think I could overcome. I think everyone on the team is experiencing that.”

This senior leads six returning regulars: senior Taylor Heberle at outside hitter, senior Morgan Copley at opposite hitter and graduate student Danie Tyson, fifth-year Lana Strejcek and sophomore Ainsley Guse as middle blockers.

Matthews, who carried the team in kills last season, was selected to the All-MAC East Preseason Team.

Graduate student libero Erin Gardner led her team in digs in three of her past four seasons and maintains the third-highest record for digs in program history. She missed a third of last year’s season after tearing her ACL in February 2021.

This year, senior Gracey Jarecke, who started some games in Gardner’s place, could see more time as starting libero. She totaled 163 digs last season and started in all three games of this season’s opening weekend Aug. 26 and 27.

“Gracey did a good job of still being that vocal person when Erin was off the court,” Eckerman said. “Each week, we’re taking it statistic by statistic. Both of them are neck and neck. This is the time for us to try some different things.”

Graduate student Alex Haffner will play her last season as setter this year. She has started since 2018 after transferring from Kansas State, where she redshirted her freshman year.

Haffner said Eckerman brings positivity to her team.

“She helps us build confidence,” Haffner said. “It’s really good to have that new energy around us to help us compete and move forward.”

Kent State’s first two games of the season reflected that.

For the first time since the team’s 2021 spring season, Kent State started the year 2-0 at the JMU Invitational last weekend. In their second match of the tournament, the Flashes finished with a .368 hitting percentage, their second-best performance since 2016.

The Flashes beat UAlbany 3-1 Friday morning. That night, they defeated Robert Morris 3-1.

Matthews led or tied for the lead in kills both games, and freshman right side Mia Soerensen started in both games.

Freshman Mackenzie McGuire made her collegiate debut against Albany but started for the first time Friday night. She tied for the second-most kills from Kent of the weekend, slamming 13.

The outside hitter said she became more comfortable on the court as the weekend went on.

“I could definitely feel the jitters when I first got on the court, but I feel like that comes with every first game of the season,” McGuire said. “As I got into it, I was more relaxed and just played how I usually do. It was a lot of fun.”

Even after an exciting 31-29 rally in Saturday’s second set against James Madison, the Flashes were down 2-0. They came back in the third and fourth set to tie the battle, but KSU could not maintain its momentum for a tournament sweep.

JMU finished the tournament undefeated.

Last season, the Flashes struggled on the serve, totaling 201 errors. Last weekend, KSU had twice as many serving errors as the Dukes, 34 to 16.

“The biggest thing is trying to manage the errors and put players in situations where they have to be smarter and actually place the ball somewhere,” Eckerman said. “That was something they struggled with last year and obviously this week.”

Jarecke was named MAC East defensive player of the week after her strong defensive performance. She averaged 4.15 digs per set as starting libero and tallied a career-high 24 digs at Saturday’s game.

The Flashes make their M.A.C. Center debut at the Kent State Invitational this weekend, playing against Southern Indiana Friday at 7 p.m. They play Cornell at 10 a.m. and Oakland at 7 p.m. Saturday.

In three weeks, beginning Sept. 23, Bowling Green comes to Kent for the start of MAC play. Haffner said this matchup is “a big one we’re looking forward to” this season.

KSU’s string of conference games continues until Nov. 16.

Going into this weekend’s tournament, Eckerman and two team leaders had three words for their fans: Pack the M.A.C.

“I’m excited to get people here,” Eckerman said. “The more people we can get in the gym, the better.”

Isabella Schreck is sports editor. Contact her at [email protected].