High Point Panthers looking like predators of Big South play

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High Point-Panthers-Tom Mendoza-Molly Livingston

The High Point volleyball program may not reside on the Mount Rushmore of NCAA teams in the sport, but that isn’t keeping the Panthers from having a monumental run in 2017.

Sure, it’s no shock to see High Point bashing away in the win-loss column. The Panthers won the Big South tournament last year to reach the NCAA Tournament for the second time since it began Division I play in 1999. And as Big South preseason favorites in 2017, High Point has two all-Big South honorees in senior Haley Barnes and junior Molly Livingston, who are meeting and exceeding expectations.

Two weeks into October, the Panthers are percolating. After Tuesday’s sweep of Liberty, High Point is 7-0 in the Big South (14-6 overall) and winners of 17 straight sets, the longest current streak in the nation. Five of the league wins came on the road, and the team is now receiving votes in the VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.

“We’re excited where we are at. We lost two or three matches in the pre-conference where we’ve felt like we’d love to have back or finish better,” said second-year Panthers coach Tom Mendoza, who was an assistant at Creighton as the Bluejays built their strong mid-major resume. “However, we thought it was possible we’d start 0-10, with no automatic wins on that pre-conference schedule. I give credit to the group … but there’s no concern about getting caught up in the hype because our most important matches are in front of us.

Next up for the Panthers are home matches against UNC Asheville (4-2 Big South, 8-9 overall) on Saturday and Gardner-Webb (1-6, 7-13) next Tuesday.

“We don’t have to convince the team about why we should keep trying to get better,” Mendoza said. “Everyone knows it comes down to a couple weekends in November, and the goal is to keep taking steps in the right direction.”

Mendoza has been determined to not needlessly mess with the chemistry of his inherited roster. High Point finished 21-10 in coach Jason Oliver’s final year — he moved on to become an assistant at Indiana — with Barnes and Livingston anchoring the offense and Katie Tylman also showing her mettle as a sophomore. The primary concern had to do with consistency, as the Panthers would often follow up two straight terrific efforts with a clunker.

“I felt very comfortable starting at High Point, because I saw a lot of similarities with Creighton. That was a strong group, but a team that had never won its conference or been to the NCAA tournament,” Mendoza said. “We learned as a group how to succeed on a national level; that group didn’t have a history of success. At High Point, we were not rebuilding, but again it hadn’t had sustained success relative to our conference, winning championships. You just have to go through it as a group and learn what it takes.

“I tried to emphasize that, rather than change the structure of the defense, or our terminology. We peaked late (in 2016), were somewhat consistent, and were playing our best at the end. I’d say there’s more complexity to defense now, more stability, more consistent play. We won our tournament and after that we believed we should expect it out of ourselves, but still needed to learn how to play that well for every single match.”

Livingston is hitting a stellar .387 and leads the team in kills with 229 and also in blocks with 76, just more than one per set. Barnes gets tasked with the difficult swings when the team is out of system, but she has 226 kills, leads the way in aces (34) and is second in digs. Tylman is hitting .287 and has 175 kills, while the back row is fortified nicely by freshman libero Abby Bottomley. Mendoza also needed some production from a fresh face on the ride side after factoring in graduation, and freshman Katie Doering has been a stabilizing force.

At setter, the Panthers found themselves very naturally evolving into a 6-2 system. Last year, Carly Jimenez began to take on more responsibility there, but wasn’t expected to shoulder the entire task, while Jenna Smith also began to show some ability in that space. In 2017, Jimenez (a senior) and Smith (a sophomore) combine for about 12 assists per set.

“We felt that a 6-2 matched our strengths. Last year, Carly as a junior hadn’t set as much, so she was learning how to step into that starting role,” Mendoza said, “and we had a good young freshman in Jenna Smith, but she was learning what the college game is all about.

“They were both just excited to be on the court. Both are so selfless and want team to be successful, so playing in a 6-2 is not a sacrifice. It’s a little unusual having to take on that role as a leader on the floor half the time, but they have been very good ones.”

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