The last time Cincinnati coach Molly Alvey played Penn State, well, it was a while ago and more on that later.
First, how about those Bearcats?
“This is very exciting,” Alvey said.
That put Cincinnati into the second round for just the sixth time in program history. But then Saturday, the Bearcats upset sixth-seeded Pittsburgh on its home court to advance to an NCAA Regional for the first time in program history.
And, as you might expect, NCAA kills leader and USA national-team player Jordan Thompson led with 27 kills in the 24-26, 25-21, 16-25, 25-21, 15-13 victory (As a side note, her dad, Tyrone, played basketball at Pittsburgh and was a Harlem Globetrotter and her uncle, Chris Doleman played football at Pitt before having a long NFL career). In that fifth set, Pitt went up 4-0, Cincinnati came back, but was down again 12-9 before rallying to close it out.
Let’s start with senior outside hitter Thompson, who leads the NCAA in kills (768) and kills per set (6.40) while hitting a remarkable .343.
Second on the NCAA total kills list is Utah’s Dani Drews, who has 625, 143 fewer. Her kills per set is almost a full kill over the next person on the list, Baylor star Yossiana Pressley at 5.42.
So the question has long begged: How did Cincinnati get her in the first place, this high-flying product of Edina, Minnesota, who last summer was a key player for the USA as it clinched a spot in the 2020 Olympics?
“We treated her like every other recruit in the recruiting process,” Alvey said. “We always try to target the players that we think we need and are at a high level. The ones that show some interest or respond back, we do our due diligence and really follow up.”
Thompson, who played for Club 43 and Northern Lights, was certainly a high-level recruit.
“We got her to campus and she fell in love with it,” Alvey said. “And I think, and this is from talking to her, that when she came on campus she knew this was the place for her and she felt comfortable with us being her future coaches and she believed in the culture we were trying to build.”
Alvey, in her eighth year at UC and who had a record of 111-113 in those first seven, laughed.
“You know, the time that she committed we were nowhere near where we’ve been these last three to four years. She took a chance on us and it’s certainly paid off for all of us.”
The challenge for both Thompson and Alvey, once the star got back from the national team, was to get back into the Cincinnati mix, lift her teammates and not get frustrated.
“I think it definitely was a challenge. You’re playing with some of the highest-paid professionals in the world for three months and her being a rookie on the team, she had a lot to learn. And that’s kind of what we talked about together, just coach and player,” Alvey recalled.
“I told her that the experience that you had this summer you kind of owe to your team to give them that. You don’t have Lauren Carlini as your setter. You don’t have this or that. You could name everybody on that team and that’s not who this team is.”
Thompson, of course, got it.
“She’s very easy to work with,” Alvey said.
Alvey reminded her of just how young her team was and got Thompson to lend her experience to the group.
‘And she’s morphed even more into a more fantastic leader and even a role model for these players. She’s given them a lot of confidence.”
And now, four months later, Cincinnati goes to Palo Alto on Friday where it plays Penn State of the Big Ten before Stanford faces Utah. The winners play Saturday with a spot in the NCAA national semifinals on the line.
If nothing else, the Bearcats can’t say they haven’t been in tough situations.
Thompson wasn’t the only reason Alvey arranged such a tough pre-conference schedule. To wit:
Cincinnati beat South Carolina (which got an NCAA bid) in four at Pittsburgh before getting swept by (cue the foreshadowing music) Pittsburgh.
The Bearcats swept Tennessee, No. 21 at the time, lost in four at Michigan State, beat two more NCAA-bound teams in Notre Dame and Ball State, before losing in five at Northern Kentucky. And the Norse also played in the NCAA Tournament. And before the AAC began, Thompson had 41 kills as Cincinnati also won in five against visiting Louisville, another team in the NCAA round of 16.
“I knew we were young, but I knew we had the right mentality for it,” Alvey said. “And obviously Jordan would be ready to lead the team.
“And I always schedule tough. I think it’s the best way to get better. You don’t know what you don’t know. Playing higher-level teams, well, the one thing I always tell our coaches is the only thing we can’t teach is experience. You can talk about it, you can show film, but you can’t give them experience on the court. So you have to play those teams that can challenge you and open your horizons to what it means to be a good program.”
Cincinnati even beat the Atlantic 10’s Dayton in four in the middle of the season.
With the success they had in the non-conference schedule, Alvey said, “We really kind of created an identity for ourselves,” Alvey said.
“And right now we’re starting one senior, one freshman and all sophomores. And our serving sub who came off the bench and served match point (at Pittsburgh) is a freshman. It’s kind of incredible the way these guys have come together and and what they’ve done.”
Thompson not only has all those kills, but a team-high 48 aces, she’s third on the team with 326 digs (2.72/set) and has 43 blocks, five solo.
Sophomore Maria Mallon, a 5-9 outside hitter from Chesterfield, Michigan, has 432 kills (3.79/set), 44 aces, 344 digs and 27 blocks, six solo.
Adira Oliver, 6-1 middle from Orangeburg, South Carolina, has 264 kills, is hitting .335, and had 68 blocks, 12 solo. Norwegian Karoline Fauske, 6-1 right side, has 175 kills, 30 aces, 230 digs and 47 blocks. And Damjana Cabarkapa, a 6-3 middle from Serbia, has 110 kills, is hitting .328, and leads with 76 blocks, 123 solo.
The digs leader is libero Mackenzie Conner, a 5-6 sophomore from Centerville, Ohio, who has 375 and averages an assist per set. That freshman who served at the end of the match at Pittsburgh is 5-6 Kerstin Ficker, who is from Cincinnati, and had 27 aces this season.
And the setter is 5-7 sophomore Armania Heckenmueller, who, presumably, doesn’t get offended when she reads that she’s not Lauren Carlini. But she’s from Cincinnati, played at Mount Notre Dame High School and the club Elevation, and is having one heck of a season.
Heckenmueller averages 12.19 assists, 2.08 digs, and has 24 aces and 27 blocks. Her line against Pittsburgh: 58 assists, two blocks and six digs.
“I’ll tell you what,” Alvey offered, “I think she’s one of the most underrated setters in the country.”
For that matter, Heckenmueller and Mallon together might be the best-kept secrets in NCAA Division I volleyball this season.
“I don’t know what it is about Armania that everyone else hasn’t seen. I mean the kid is a really fantastic quarterback, running plays, knowing what’s open, having that natural instinct as a setter. Her overhead setting is some of the best I’ve ever had and it’s very natural for her,” said Alvey, quite a good setter herself in her day.
“And Maria was a pretty well-known player a lot of people probably passed on because of size,” Alvey said. “She really this year has learned how to score points.”
Cincinnati went 15-1 in the American Athletic Conference this season, which including a sweep of UCF at home early, winning at Houston in five, sweeping SMU, and winning at UCF in mid-November. The lone was loss was at Tulane when the Bearcats were swept in mid-October.
In the final home game, against UConn, Thompson had 50 kills, breaking her own conference record of 44 and became just the seventh player in DI history to get 50 or more kills. And it was the first since 1999. More remarkable was that she had just six errors in 83 swings to hit .530 and had an ace and 11 digs.
In the AAC tournament, they made up for the Tulane loss with a sweep of Tulane before losing in five to UCF on its home court in Orlando as Thompson had 38 kills, 20 digs and two aces. UCF, by the way, knocked off Florida State in its first-round NCAA match before losing to Florida.
Thompson had 27 kills, an assist, an ace, two blocks and 10 digs in the victory over VCU.
And now …
There are 16 teams left and nine of them have never won a title. Cincinnati, of course, is one of the nine.
The next step comes against Penn State, which is 26-5, tied for second in the Big Ten, and has won nine of its last 10 matches.
Alvey’s got quite a resume. She was the head coach at Southern Indiana in 2004 and in 2010 and ’11 was the head coach at Houston.
The Kentuckian played both volleyball and basketball at Centre College in Danville, Kentucky, and was inducted into the school’s athletics hall of fame. Her first job was as a graduate assistant for Bob Bertucci at Temple.
In 2002, Temple won the Atlantic 10 and then, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at Penn State, knocked off the Nittany Lions to make it to the NCAA’s third round.
That was the last time that Alvey can remember that she personally has faced Penn State.
Last season, Cincinnati finished 26-8, sweeping Illinois State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before getting swept by Marquette.
Alvey hopes that experience, the pre-conference schedule, a tough AAC season, and winning at Pittsburgh continues to pay dividends.
“I think a lot of that work we tried to do on the front end of the season,” Alvey said. “I know they can be star struck instead of remembering their purpose and what they’re there for and what they’re to do. So we will definitely talk about it — we always communicate really openly and candidly with them — but I think they get it.
“And I think that there couldn’t have been a better experience than what they had at Pitt on Saturday night, to kind of say that, ‘Hey, you stay who you are.’
“You stay true to yourself and who you are as a player and you don’t let anything change and then who cares what happens? You might win, you might lose, but at least then you know that you were you on the court and you put your best foot forward.”