After finishing 2018 with an 11-3 conference record in a four-way tie for second place and a bid in the National Invitational Tournament, the Mean Green volleyball team doesn’t look to slow down in conference in 2019. The 11-3 record marked the second consecutive double-digit conference win season after ending 2017 at 13-1 (29-4 overall). With two players graduating from last year’s team, head coach Andrew Palileo look to clinch a top spot in Conference USA again and for him, the proper way to do that is by scheduling nationally ranked opponents.
“The longer I’ve been here we feel like our program should be playing tough preseason tournaments and games as well as top 25, top 50, and at minimum top 75 on a consistent basis,” Palileo said.
The Mean Green began the 2019 campaign playing twelve non-conference opponents, nine of which had a winning season and a winning conference record in 2018. The winning programs on the schedule include Illinois State, Pepperdine, Tulsa, No. 23 Cal Poly, San Jose State, Wichita State, Abilene Christian, Kansas State and New Mexico State. From that list, Pepperdine made their way to the third round of the 2018 NCAA Division I volleyball tournament.
“They [prepare us] in some ways,” Palileo said. “It helps us see different types of play, which is the important thing. Also with the different levels of volleyball I.Q. that the nationally recognized teams bring, not that Conference USA doesn’t provide it, but some of those other teams bring it in different ways.”
In the first half of non-conference play, the Mean Green are off to a 2-4 record. After coming off wins in the first tournament this year against Pepperdine and Tulsa (who both had winning records and made postseason appearances in 2018), leaders of the Mean Green squad are optimistic about finishing the second half of non-conference play.
“Big wins against those types of teams can help us get in a good position to be at the top of our conference,” junior outside hitter Valerie Valerian said.
Valerian, who plays a key role in the Mean Green’s offense and as a leader, hopes to continue on last season. She earned a First Team All-Conference nod and led the team in kills with .495 and was the first Mean Green athlete in program history to be named as a member of the National Collegiate Volleyball Team. As of the first six games, Valerian has scored an average of 4.04 points per set.
Sophomore middle blocker Sara Haeussler looks to follow in the footsteps of Valerian on the offensive side of the ball. She currently has scored 2.73 points per set. Haeussler’s role saw substantial growth at the end of her freshman campaign. Even as an underclassman, she feels like she can be a leader on and off the court to fill in for some of the losses from last year.
“A lot of us have gotten experience as hitters, so we know which shots to make,” Haeussler said. “Even middle hitters, we have an improved front along with our defense that is keeping the ball up, when last year we know we wouldn’t have gotten to those balls.”
C-USA play for the Mean Green starts on Sept. 27 against Alabama-Birmingham, who finished ninth in Conference USA in 2018. Notable games in conference play include Rice (last year’s C-USA winner) on Sept. 29, Florida Atlantic on Nov. 3, Western Kentucky on Nov. 8, and Texas-San Antonio on Nov. 16.
Featured Image: The Mean Green celebrates their win against Tulsa on Aug. 31, 2019. Image by Isabel Anes