Last season, the Rebels went 21-9 (10-8 in SEC play), earning a trip to the big dance for the first time in eleven years. They did so through stellar play from setter Kylee McLaughlin and middle blocker Sasha Ratliff, who both finished with All-SEC honors.
McLaughlin, along with Libero Sam Burgio, and several other seniors, is gone now and must be replaced.
This season is an important one for head coach Kayla Banwarth, as she sets out to prove last season wasn’t a fluke but was foundational to the program she’s trying to build in Oxford. Certainly there are pieces remaining for Ole Miss, but the Rebels will have to see some players emerge to take over for key pieces who have gone.
On top of those graduations, Banwarth also revamped her entire coaching staff, promoting Brad Creamer from a volunteer assistant position and adding Bre Henry from Santa Clara.
Middle — Sasha Ratliff, Payton Brgoch
Outside — Anna Bair, Julia Dyess
Opposite — Samantha Schnitta
Setter — Sommer Daniel, Aly Borellis
Libero & Defensive specialists — Bria Samilton, Riley Fischer, Maggie Miller
Getting Ratliff back as just a junior is excellent, as she will be one of the best in the conference and occasionally just dominates entire matches. Overall, there’s a lot of experience returning, and that will likely result in fewer mistakes. There’s no one outside of Ratliff though who has shown the ability to be an elite player yet.
The setter is likely to be the biggest transition, as this team attempts to replace Kylee McLaughlin. Lacking returning production there Banwarth looked to the transfer portal and recruiting, getting Daniel to transfer from Utah and Aly Borellis to sign last November. Borelis is one of five AVCA High School All-Americans in this recruiting class, tied for the most in the country. Obviously, Banwarth will be looking to them to solve some of the issues this team has with depth. One or more emerging as legitimate options could help this team return to the NCAA tournament for a second straight season.
But the setter will be key. It’s vital for players to get timing down with a setter so they can anticipate when and where the ball will be coming for the spike. Ratliff, Bair, and Schnitta need to know what that chosen setter is doing and be in the right place when the sets do come. It’s likely that Banwarth will ultimately pick a setter and roll with whoever that is, as the position doesn’t see tons of rotation. Ultimately, this team will also need to figure out who its second outside hitter is. While Dyess is the most experienced returner, there could be some rotating early to figure out what Banwarth has in some of the other promising players on the team.
The Rebels jump right out of the gate with matches against #9 Georgia Tech and #17 Illinois in the Ole Miss invitational. The rest of the non-conference schedule isn’t a cakewalk either, but they won’t see another ranked team until SEC play starts. Overall, Ole Miss will play ten matches against NCAA tournament teams. They’ll need to compete both in and out of conference play to see a return themselves.
Overall, there’s enough talent returning on the team. The difference in success and failure is likely to come in whether they have improved upon a number of smaller issues and unforced errors that plagued the team at times last season. With a new setter, there’s less opportunity for error, so the rest of the team will need to be very disciplined.
That and feed Sasha Ratliff. Like, a lot.