By Greg Echlin for VolleyballMag.com
Before the season, other American Athletic Conference coaches recognized Cincinnati’s talent, centered on a strong sophomore class with strong athletic ties. That’s why they gave the nod to the Bearcats as the pre-season pick to win the league. But with two road matches that opened the league schedule last week, it’s almost as if the AAC collectively said, “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
On the surface, the UC record of 6-7 isn’t that impressive. But the Bearcats played a relatively tough non-conference schedule, starting with nine matches on the road in tournaments at Tennessee, Wichita State and Western Kentucky.
They opened AAC play at Tulsa last Thursday, a victory then ended with the officials reversing a call on match point. Then two days later, they came up short at defending AAC-champion SMU, losing in five.
“It’s really early and I think it, more importantly, gives us a good baseline from which to work and gives us a good visual on things we did really well and things that we certainly need to work on,” fifth-year Cincinnati coach Molly Alvey said.
Though the Bearcats indeed opened the AAC slate with a split, Alvey forsees potential of winning the conference title (the AAC has no post-season tournament) and reaching the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 when Reed Sunahara, now at West Virginia, was the head coach.
In Sunahara’s 11 seasons at UC, the Bearcats reached the NCAA tournament eight times.
“I think we have the right pieces in place,” Alvey said. “I think we have a full team that believes in one another because that’s half the battle.”
A big key is Jordan Thompson, last year’s American Athletic Conference freshman of the year. She is the niece of Pro Football Hall of Fame defensive lineman Chris Doleman.
“I think Jordan is one piece to the full kind of puzzle that we’re putting together in trying to grow this program, but she certainly is a fantastic player,” Alvey said.
Thompson, for one, was excited that the Bearcats were the preseason favorites.
“I thought it was a huge honor,” said Thompson, a 6-foot-4 outside hitter from Edina, Minnesota. “Knowing that other people can see where this program is going is really cool to be recognized.”
Against Tulsa last week, Thompson tied a career-high with 27 kills, many from the back row, and set a career-high with 13 digs. She followed that with a double-double against SMU (22 kills, 10 digs).
When asked about the difference between Thompson’s freshman and sophomore seasons, Alvey responded, “I think one of the biggest pieces for her is playing the game for a longer period of time. Just her stamina, her strength and playing six rotations. That’s a big difference for her this year from her freshman year. She’s picking better spots blocking. Her first contact is a lot better.”
Thompson concedes that she’s still developing a defensive mindset on the floor.
“I think just being a three-rotation (front-row) player before, I was all offensive oriented,” Thompson said. “Really now, I’m looking at my defense and how I can set a new level there.”
It was noticed from the other side of the net by third-year Tulsa coach Ryan Wills.
“She’s gone to another level without a doubt,” he said. “She’s added a couple of tools.”
Thompson, along with Bearcat assistant coach Phillip Whitel, got a taste of international competition over the summer as representatives of the U.S. collegiate national team that toured China and played in three different Chinese cities from June 18 to July 1. The summer experience eased Thompson into her role as an all-round player this season.
“She wants to compete at the highest level, so she’s incorporating these pieces into her game immediately,” Alvey said. “She’s tackling them head on.”
Notice the football reference. And Thompson isn’t the only Bearcat with a football pedigree. Jade Tingelhoff, a sophomore setter from Lakeville, Minn., is the grand-daughter of Pro Football Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff. Tingelhoff and Doleman were Minnesota Vikings players in two different eras.
In her freshman season, Tingelhoff dished out 992 assists, the fifth best ever for a UC freshman.
“Anyone who grows in a family with a background of athletics understands the life of being an athlete,” Alvey said. “It’s different from being in the real world. It’s a different mentality.”
Another sophomore playing a prominent role for the Bearcats this season is Carly Nolan of Crystal Lake Ill., whose mother (Mary Nolan) played volleyball at Texas Tech. While Thompson had 459 kills last year, the second-best ever for a UC freshman, Nolan added 372 kills, the eighth best for a UC freshman.
Luring prospects from other states like Minnesota and Illinois have bolstered the Bearcat program. Alvey hopes to keep that going.
“We identified them and got them to campus,” Alvey said/ “I think within the program, and what I try to train my staff with as well, we communicate openly and be fair with recruits and what it is we have to offer. I think giving them a true personal feel to what our program is is one of our strengths in recruiting.”
Just up the road from Cincinnati this year is the NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship in Columbus. The significance of it taking place in the state of Ohio is not lost on Alvey, who hopes for a peripheral effect on her program.
“It’s fantastic,” she said. “The people coming through the state, the people who have to drive to Cincinnati to get up to Columbus is driving traffic this way. Bringing recognition to the state is really great.”
Cincinnati is home twice this weekend for AAC matches, entertaining USF on Friday and UCF on Sunday.