A crucial week is ahead for new head coach Alisa Blair’s Wildcats (6-15, 3-6) as her team finishes out their home schedule this weekend against the Seattle U Redhawks (4-12, 0-8) on Thursday and the Utah Valley Wolverines (13-7, 7-1) on Saturday.
Last weekend, the Wildcats lost 3-2 on the road to the University of Texas-Arlington Mavericks on Thursday but came back home with a 3-1 win over the Tarleton State Texans on Saturday. This weekend, ACU takes on a Redhawks team on Thursday who are yet to win a Western Athletic Conference matchup as they are 0-8 so far, dead last in the WAC. In contrast, the Wolverines are 7-1, good enough for second in the WAC. ACU is currently 10th out of thirteen in the WAC.
“We’re in maintenance mode at this point,” Blair said. “We’re definitely still learning and still challenging them and we’re having to push in areas that we’re not comfortable in, just cleaning up some things that we’re not being successful in. We’ve got to make sure that we’re sleeping, we’re eating, we’re having all those little talks about maintaining what we have and understanding our bodies are breaking down. Our girls are having to understand that high level right now.”
The Redhawks have struggled this year but two players who have shined are outside hitter Arianna Bilby, sophomore from Arlington, Washington, and setter Ezgi Ozkan, senior from Istanbul. Bilby is second in kills per set in the WAC with 3.4 and Ozkan is third in assists per set with 8.79. As a team, SU ranks 10th or lower in every category in the WAC except for blocks where they rank fourth with 2.18 per set.
For UVU, three players have been bright – setter Natalie Palmer, sophomore from Gilbert, Arizona, middle blocker Jules Fink, sophomore from South Lebanon, Ohio and middle blocker Makayla Broadbent, senior from Cedar Hills, Utah. Palmer is fifth in the WAC in service aces per set with .36 but the middle blockers have been dominant with Fink in first with 1.1 per set and Broadbent with 1.08 per set. The Wolverines are in the top four in every category except for opponent hitting percentage with .205. Due to Palmer, Fink and Broadbent’s dominance, UVU are first in blocks and service aces.
“Utah Valley is going to bring some really good challenges towards us,” Blair said. “But I think our girls are ready to go against that challenge, and I think our underclassmen are going to really step up to help support our seniors on their day.”
Saturday’s matchup against UVU is Senior Day and will be the last home game for six seniors – middle blocker Breanna Box from Wichita Falls, outside hitter Jada Birkel from Austin, outside hitter Londyn Gray from Weatherford, libero and defensive specialist Logan Browning from Wichita Falls, right side Rachel Crismore from Brackettville and setter Madison Rohre from Woodway.
“They’re our core leaders,” Blair said. “They have a lot of respect from our underclassmen and they are what drives our team. They went through two different coaching staffs and I thought with the change with us, they really all jumped on board. They’re the leading force of what has made this program so far successful so we’re super excited to honor them.”
Leading the Wildcats in the WAC are middle blocker Braden Bossier, junior from Fairfield, and setter Madeline Guffy, sophomore from Krum. Bossier is eighth in hitting percentage with .300 while Guffy is seventh in service aces per set with .34.
Last weekend against UTA, outside hitter Ashli Edmiston, freshman from Wilsonville, Oregon, became the first freshman to reach 200 kills since former outside hitter Katelyn Mueller, Sugar Land native, in 2017 with 268. Another Wildcat standing out was libero Andie Sheppard, redshirt sophomore from Midland, who racked up 20 digs against UTA and 18 against Tarleton. As a libero this year, Sheppard has tallied 62 digs, enough for 3.44 per set.
“I feel comfortable playing with every girl next to me,” Sheppard said. “I feel that when I go out there with confidence, I play my best. If I was to go out there worried, then I would never be successful.”
In order for the Wildcats to qualify for one of the eight spots in the Western Athletic Conference tournament on Nov. 17-19, they must win their final five matchups. Following SU and UVU are three road matchups against Sam Houston (6-18, 3-7), the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley (19-4, 8-0) and New Mexico State (12-8, 4-4). The lone road win for the Wildcats on the year came against the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles on Sept. 3 in a 3-1 win.
“This is the hardest volleyball of the year,” Blair said. “Everyone’s going through the same grind. Every team in the nation is going through the same hardships and everyone’s tired. So who can be really resilient at this point? Our girls understand that if we want to make the conference tournament, we have the ability if we push really hard in these last couple of games.”
The Wildcats begin their final week in Moody Coliseum against the Redhawks at 6 p.m. on Thursday and will be streamed live on ESPN+. Senior Day against UVU begins at 12 p.m. and will be streamed live on WAC International.