Ole Miss volleyball is back the court for their first match of the of the 2020 season tonight, hosting Texas A&M at 6:30 p.m. CDT on SEC Network. The Rebels are under new leadership after hiring former United States Volleyball libero and well-decorated Olympian Kayla Banwarth as the eight head coach in program history.
Banwarth brings an impressive resume as both a player and a coach with her to Oxford and will hope to inject new life into a team that went 14-15 last season.
“It doesn’t feel real. I’m so excited and I know the girls are probably 10 times as excited as I am,” said Banwarth. “It’s been the longest year of anyone’s lives, but finally we get to play a match, so we’re stoked.”
Ole Miss’ last match of 2019 came on Nov. 30, marking almost 11 months away from the court in a competition setting before this past weekend’s intrasquad scrimmage. Its first opponent is ranked No. 8 in the country and began its season with two confident wins over LSU this past weekend.
Finding a groove early in the year will be important for the new-look program, but Texas A&M is a tall task to start the season and is considered the team’s biggest in-conference rival, so hanging tough and forcing one of the two matches into five games would be a good start. Pulling off the upset would be a statement to ring in a new era.
“I’d love for them to just have this renewed energy around Ole Miss Volleyball,” said Banwarth. “I think that they’re going to be able to do that, just with the fire and the drive they’ve shown me so far. We’ll feel this new vibe and this new energy surrounding this program.”
The shortened season will begin with back-to-back matches against A&M on Thursday and Friday and then continue with a two-match series at Arkansas next weekend, two matches at LSU on Nov. 7 and 8, and concluded with two home matches against Missouri on Nov. 20 and 21.
“Really tough SEC schedule this fall,” said Banwarth. “We draw the No. 3, 4 and 5 ranked teams in the conference, starting right away in the fall. So, we have quite a challenge ahead of us.”
Not only was Banwarth a great hire in her own right, she brought in Maggie Scott and Beau Lawler who carry with them a wealth of experience to help coach up a team that is looking to run a fast offense and compete right away.
Every successful volleyball play starts with a good pass. Ole Miss will have the tall task of replacing libero Nicole Purcell in the back row after she led the league in digs and digs per set in 2019. Fortunately, Banwarth has quite a bit of knowledge at the position, having started for three-and-a-half years at Nebraska before competing with the national team.
Avery Bugg is the most-likely candidate to step into the libero jersey after appearing in all 29 matches with 13 starts last season. The 5-foot-6 junior recorded 10 matches with double-digit digs in 2019, finishing the year with 245 total digs and 18 aces as a back-row passer. Prior to college, Bugg earned an Under Armour All-America Honorable Mention in 2017 and made the AAU 16 Open All-America Team. She is consistent with her passing and quick to cover the backline which should make the transition from Purcell pretty seamless.
When Bugg isn’t on the court, sophomore Maggie Miller or Freshmen Amber Bischel and Emily Hawes will also see time in the back row. All three have impressed Banwarth in the preseason and will be involved in some capacity.
Miller only saw time against Missouri State in 2019, but she comes from a volleyball family and earned quite a few honors in high school. The 5-foot-5 Houston-native could wind up wearing the libero jersey on Thursday, but more than likely, she will play an important defensive specialist role as a substitute for the right side hitter or in dire serve-receive situations, similar to Bugg’s role last year.
Bischel and Hawes were named one of the top defensive specialists by PrepVolleyball.com in high school and bring high-level club experience to the roster. It is unclear as to how much of a role that either will play this fall, but Banwarth has been excited about their fire on the court.
Once the first pass is up, it’s on the setter to distribute the ball to her hitters. This is the most contentious position battle on the court and both Scott and Banwarth are excited about the hands they have at their disposal. Banwarth has made it clear that she intends to use a 5-1 offense over a 6-2, which means that one setter will play all the way around in rotation, including the front row, as opposed to substituting two setters in the rotation, keeping three attacking options in the front row at all times and having the setter play only out of the back row. This means that she will have a difficult decision to make prior to Thursday’s coin toss.
Senior Lauren Bars is the incumbent three-year starter and stands 6-foot-1. She has racked up 2,640 assists in her career to date and will move into third all-time in program history with 187 more this season. The Nashville-native tallied 1,085 assists last season and recorded a league-best 16 double-doubles— meaning 10+ assists and 10+ digs.
What makes Bars especially dangerous is her presence at the net and on the service line. At her height, she brings a valuable block to the front row and had 11 games hitting at .500 or better last year. She finished the season with 98 kills on a .325 percentage, 298 digs, 65 blocks and a team-best 21 aces.
The only drawback to Bars is her quickness and experience in an offense that wants to go as fast as Scott and Banwarth. Having set a higher ball in her first three years, the transition to quicker 1-balls in the middle and 3-balls and shoots to the outside may not come as naturally. With that being said, Banwarth has praised her senior leader for the work she put in throughout the dead period and in the preseason to learn the offense and increase the speed of her lateral movement.
If Bars does not get the start, it will be in favor of Clemson transfer Gabby Easton. The 5-foot-8 junior joined the Rebels early in the spring after two years with the Tigers. She tore up the ACC as a freshman, but did not start last season behind one of the more talented recruits in the program’s history. She chose to transfer as a result and bought into Banwarth’s vision.
Easton made 1,397 assists in 2018, good for second in the conference, and she added 206 digs and 78 total blocks. Simply put, she may be the better pure setter and has more experience with getting the ball out of her hands on quick sets. However, her net presence in a 5-1 offense isn’t nearly as valuable on the attack and is a relative wash as a blocker.
Freshman Callaway Cason will be the third piece to the puzzle and was quite the baller in her own right. She finished her high school career with the third-most all-time assists in the state of Georgia and played on one of the best club teams in the country.
”It’s quite the competition at the setter position,” said Banwarth. “We have three very talented setters. I still don’t know who’s going to be starting for us yet. It’s probably been the closest competition out of all the positions so far this year.”
The setter position is the most important storyline as the Rebels take the court on Thursday night and it will be interesting to see whether Easton or Bars gets the nod.
The first look out of a setter’s hands is always to the middle, where the Rebels return a strong duo of upperclassmen with experience. Banwarth has been vocal about the need for systematic change and blocking in the middle was a big part of those new concepts and techniques.
Aubrey Sultemeier will lead the charge as the incumbent starter after a strong sophomore season in 2019. The 6-foot-3 Texan recorded 13 games with a .300 hitting percentage or better and ranked in the Top 10 in the SEC with 108 total blocks. Banwarth noted that Sultemeier is very good at attacking behind the setter but has been working on her offense in front of the setter throughout the offense. In a system that wants to go fast and beat the block, she will need to establish better pace and timing to explode onto the scene.
6-foot-0 Bayleigh Scott will slide into the other middle spot after three years with playing time in a reserve role. Banwarth speaks highly of her senior leader, calling her the hardest worker on the team and ‘one of those kids you want to play with and want to be around.’ Scott’s size doesn’t necessarily match-up with some of the opponents she will see on the other side of the net, but what she lacks in height, she makes up for in hops. Scott played more in her freshman and sophomore years than she did last season, but her athleticism suits the offense Ole Miss is looking to run well.
6-foot-4 Ava Wampler was not someone that her opponents wanted to hit against in high school and this year will be for continued growth under Banwarth and Scott. Freshmen Payton Brgoch and Sasha Ratliff will round out the depth chart and both will benefit from time in the system.
When the middle isn’t an option, pushing the set to the outside is the next read. For Ole Miss to be successful, the ability to replace Emily Stroup, the program’s all-time kills leader, will be the biggest factor. As much as volleyball is a team sport, having one hitter who can take over a match is enough to win a few matches alone and the Rebels need someone to step up at either pin.
Sophomore outside hitter Anna Bair will be certainly be in the mix to start on Thursday after one of the best first years that Ole Miss has seen. Bair’s 271 kills rank second in program-history amongst freshman and she did so without playing in the final 12 games of the season due to injury. Bair is a great athlete who is also a good defensive player. She will benefit from quicker sets, especially when the opponent’s middle blocker is unable to get to the pin. She is strong against 1-on-1 blocks and made a living with cross-court reads at the 1/6 and 5/6 seams. She will need to grow as a line-hitter to take the next step.
This is where things get interesting. There could be a lot of rotation at both hitters position early in the season, but there is only one true opposite hitter on the roster and that’s Sam Schnitta. She will get the start on Thursday.
Schnitta is a second-generation Rebel and comes from athletic blood, as her mom Kate also played volleyball for Ole Miss and her father Brian played football. The 6-foot-1 freshman from Kansas is extremely talented and the previous staff was very excited to get her in the boat. Prior to Ole Miss, Schnitta led her club team to the Girls Junior National Championship in 2018 and runner-up status in 2017.
On the high school level, Schnitta finished her four years as her school’s record-holder for kills (in a season and in a career), service aces (in a season and in a career), career total blocks, hitting percentage and career digs. Her impressive tenure led her to be a two-time second-team all-state and first-team all-league plaudits and being chosen as a Missouri/Kansas State All-Star selection.
She was also a state finalist in the javelin for her high school in both 2018 and 2019, and that may not correlate to volleyball, but it means she has a cannon for an arm.
Because of the COVID-19 delayed start, Schnitta and GG Carvacho graduated early and were able to get in the gym for workouts at Ole Miss in the spring. And then, because the season didn’t begin on time, they had the entire extended preseason to gain an understanding of the offense and play their way into the starting lineup.
All reports from camp say that Carvacho has been extremely impressive and Banwarth recently said that she could be the best player that the program has ever seen. Though Bair played well last season, it seems like Carvacho is an exceptional athlete and is firmly in the conversation for the start. Her 6-foot-3 frame bodes well as a blocker, she’s a next-level offensive threat and her defense presents confidence.
The Tennessee-native was recognized as a PrepVolleyball Top 100 Senior Ace in club play and she earned all-county, all-district, and all-region accolades in high school ball. She also competed at the Pan American Cup with the U20 Chilean National Team in the summer of 2019, where she led Chile in scoring and finished third overall. Carvacho will receive plenty of opportunities to prove herself this fall if Bair does get the nod.
When Bair went down late in the season, 6-foot-0 Lauren Thompson was an important contributor in her place. She appeared in 24 matches as a sophomore and recorded 40 kills. Her experience is a big positive and her 106 digs helps to make her case as a defensive plus. The depth that she provides is extremely valuable.
There was no certainty that the 2020 SEC volleyball season would take place at all as of a few months ago. Preparation has been atypical and a new staff is taking over in Oxford. Banwarth wants to finish in the top-five of the SEC in two or three years and aims to make the NCAA tournament right away.
“The girls have been training really, really hard since January, since I got here,” said Banwarth. “They’re looking like they’re ready to compete. Really high hopes for the fall and then of course the rest of the SEC schedule we will finish up in the spring.”
To reach the team’s goals, it starts with beating No. 8 Texas A&M on Thursday and Friday.