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Despite NCAA restrictions, Ole Miss volleyball is ready to take a new direction and compete amongst the best in the country

Looking at the 2020 season, the Rebels are set to attack.

Ole Miss Athletics

Athletic director Keith Carter made a statement hire when he brought former USA Volleyball libero Kayla Banwarth to Oxford as the new head coach of Ole Miss volleyball in December. Her accolades speak for themselves, and she has brought in a talented staff to help the Rebels reach their highest potential in a new offense that goes fast and aims to compete with the top programs in the nation.

However, like many coaches entering their first seasons, her first six months on the job have been anything but conventional. Not three full months into taking over the keys, the global pandemic hit and continues to cast doubt over the 2020 season.

“As of right now, our season is happening,” said Banwarth. “I don’t really know what’s going to happen, to be honest. We are planning on playing, but that could change tomorrow, that could change next week, that could change at the end of August. Who knows what’s going to happen?”

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has posed an interesting challenge for collegiate athletics. Athletic department administrators, coaches and NCAA officials alike have had to make difficult decisions for safety and protection of their student-athletes, a preferential term that has put Mark Emmert and the association in quite the bind.

It has been preached from the mountain tops since the title’s creation in 1964 that a student-athlete is equal part student and equal part athlete. It has been made abundantly clear by now that this is not truly the case. Consistently illustrated by the NCAA’s decisions (see: immediate eligibility grants/denials in college football), in many ways, the financial benefit of the student-athlete plays a larger role in his or her value than does academic prowess.

That notion has been pushed to the forefront in the wake of Coronavirus, though its roots spread to long-standing regulations. Fall sports are on the horizon, and the only three programs where coaches allowed to be in contact with their players on campus are football and men’s and women’s basketball— despite only one of their seasons beginning in the next two months.

Volleyball, soccer, track and field, and the other fall sports are prohibited from being in the gym with their team staff. Banwarth, who is unable to work with her players just over 30 days out from their first match, was very vocal about her frustration earlier this month.

While her frustration stems from a COVID-19 related timeline that has forced the issues to the forefront, it comes not with the NCAA’s handling of the virus and its new protocols. Banwarth understands that this is an unprecedented, awkward and fluid situation and that nobody really knows how to deal with this new reality.

“The frustrating part for me are some of the rules that have been in place for awhile, and that’s not specifically regarding COVID-19,” said Banwarth. “I got so jealous when I saw our basketball team getting to work with their coaches. Here we are, supposed to start practice in two weeks, and we’re still not allowed any contact with our players.”

Banwarth raises a good point, and that’s where the coronavirus factors into play. Medical experts are discussing ‘return to play protocol’ at nauseam and laying out recommended guidelines for athletes to be safe returning to play. Not from a virus standpoint, but from a physical preparation standpoint. Bodies need time to acclimate from an offseason to a regular season, especially in a sport like volleyball where muscles stretch and build to a required set of unique movements. Experts have outlined how many weeks student-athletes need to be safe returning to sport.

“And yet the NCAA is saying ‘well, your practices start here and you guys get three weeks to be with your players,’” said Banwarth. “And then we have to ask, ‘wait a minute, didn’t we just hear from all of these medical experts about what their recommended timeline is?’”

To Banwarth, the timeline doesn’t make a whole lot of sense in terms of preparation for athletes and getting ready for the season. It also addresses that fact that the summer is voluntary for her players. Ole Miss volleyball is not required to be back in the gym until August, but has elected to be back in Oxford for voluntary workouts workout with strength coach Chas Ossenheimer.

If and when the season does begin, Banwarth inherits a talented roster with as much youth as experience. Though they lose four of eight team leaders in sets played and Emily Stroup, who led the team’s attack and set a program single-season record, the 2020 Rebels return much of its depth from a year ago and the team’s incumbent setter Lauren Bars.

The team’s top offensive weapon may have moved on, but sophomore outside hitter Anna Bair is back after finishing second on the stat-sheet in kills a year ago. The Saint Louis, Mo. native stands 6-foot-1 and burst on to the scene as a freshman with 14 games with double-digit kills and 271 total. Even while missing the tail end of her first season with an injury, her kill total for 2019 ranks second in program history amongst freshmen and she added 51 blocks.

Bair is joined by 6-foot-2 junior middle blocker Aubrey Sultemeier, who came to Oxford in 2018 as a Top-100 Senior Ace by PrepVolleyball.com. In her first two years in red and blue, she appeared in all 59 matches and started in 53. Sultemeier was a big, efficient presence in the middle and recorded 13 games with a .300 hitting percentage for 176. Where she really made her mark, however, was as a blocker. No. 15 finished with 20 solo blocks and 88 block assists, ranking in the Southeastern Conference top 10. Banwarth and assistant coach Maggie Scott have expressed their desire for a middle blocker with quick, strong lateral movement. Sultemeier fits the mold.

On defense, junior defensive specialist Avery Bugg is the frontrunner for the libero jersey after playing in 116 sets and digging 245 balls a year ago. Prior to Ole Miss, she too was named a Senior Ace by PrepVolleyball.com and earned 2017 Under Armour All-America honorable mention honors. The talent is there, but she has yet to play a starting role. That is almost sure to change in 2020.

At setter, the rich got richer this offseason. Bars, who started all 117 sets last season, will be a senior this fall. She became just the fourth Rebel in the rally scoring era to surpass 2,000 assists and finished season with a league-best 16 double-doubles, 1,085 assists, 98 kills, a team-best 21 aces, 298 digs, and 65 blocks. Banwarth and Scott both are keen on her leadership, experience and front-row physicality as both a hitter and a blocker.

Initial speculation would believe Bars is the clear-cut starter for 2020. However, Banwarth and Scott added Clemson transfer setter Gabby Easton to the mix this spring. Easton, who comes from a volleyball family, has a high-IQ and a natural feel for the position. In her one season as the starter for the Tigers, she totaled 1,397 assists, ranking second in the ACC in 2018, and added 206 digs and 78 total blocks to her impressive stat line. Her presence at 5-foot-9, as opposed to Bars’ 6-foot-1, puts Easton at a disadvantage as a front-row attacker or at the poles as a line blocker, but her sets are butter.

“She brings all-conference experience and accolades that will raise the bar of Ole Miss Volleyball,” said Banwarth of her new setter. “Her talent is outweighed only by her drive to succeed.”

No matter who earns the starting role for 2020, the Rebels are in good hands. Pun intended.

There will be an adjustment period for an Ole Miss team under new leadership, and underclassmen will be forced to step into prominent starting roles, which is why Banwarth’s discouragement toward longstanding NCAA protocols are so prevalent this fall. In a regular year, the team would have had the spring to install a new offense and evaluate prospective starters. Due to COVID-19, that period was cut significantly.

Instead of having a fairly sound idea of who will play where leading into the August practices, Banwarth and her staff will be forced to make those decisions during the August practices. The NCAA has caused a lot of uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and put its student-athletes and coaches (first-year staffs in particular) at a disadvantage in terms of preparation.

There is one thing for certain, however. A new-look Ole Miss volleyball is not going to settle for mediocrity in the Banwarth era and that mindset starts with this fall.