“Just knowing that we’re not going to play next year, sometimes it’s kind of hard to play for the university. I want everybody to see how motivated we are and how impactful volleyball the sport is on each one of our lives because we’re not just playing for the school anymore, we’re playing first for each other and we’re playing because it’s volleyball. That’s the sport we grew up with. That’s the sport we know and love. And we’ll continue to play until the end.”
— La Salle freshman libero Isa Lopez
When La Salle opened this spring Atlantic 10 season, it did so with just seven players, and won twice at George Washington.
And then one of them got hurt, so there were six. And that includes two middles and a libero.
So a half-dozen Explorers, running what the coach only semi-jokingly calls a 4-1, then swept George Mason and beat Rhode Island in four, and now La Salle is 4-0.
“I’ve learned,” second-year coach Andrew Kroger said simply, “to stop doubting them.”
Of course, it’s not that simple.
Nothing is in today’s COVID-plagued college-volleyball world.
But in La Salle’s case, there’s also the big elephant in the room: The Philadelphia private school with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 4,000 is dropping volleyball at the end of this season. In late September, La Salle announced it was cutting women’s volleyball, softball, and tennis; and men’s baseball, swimming and diving, tennis, and water polo.
So not only did the Explorers lose their fall season, they would lose the program at the end of this school year.
Which makes it hard to keep a roster together. When the announcement was made, there were 13 players on the team “including a top hundred recruiting class with six freshmen.
“The message to everybody was that, hey, we’d love to have you here for one more spring,” Kroger said.
But, the 31-year-old also told his team, “I think we can be really good but you can’t sit around and be left out next summer. You’ve got to start looking for opportunities and if something comes up, you should take it.”
Five left and four of them are on new teams, and well, “that left us with eight,” said Kroger, who was elevated to head coach in 2019. He was an assistant to current Rutgers coach Caitlin Schweihofer for four years at La Salle before she went to Northeastern. Two of his former assistants got new jobs in December.
Because of Philadelphia COVID restrictions, La Salle was not on campus in the fall.
The Explorers finally got back together on campus the first week of January. Ah, those were the days:
“The good news is we had the exact right positional makeup,” Kroger said. ” … So that all looked good.”
Not that any of us could forget, but remember COVID? There was a positive test along the way. And then things got even weirder.
La Salle’s first matches, January 29-30 against fellow Philly school Temple were postponed. The next week’s matches against Fordham, scheduled for February 6-7 at La Salle, were also postponed.
What’s more, during that time, Drew Kofke, a freshman outside from nearby Reading, Pennsylvania, was diagnosed with a broken bone in her leg.
Make that seven players.
The team had a decision to make. Kroger said there was a team meeting and it was up to the players if they wanted to continue.
“Basically the answer was, ‘We feel comfortable playing with seven. We probably won’t if we get down to six for some reason.’ Obviously the thinking at that time was we’re going to make it through the season with these seven and it’s not going to be a huge deal.”
Famous last words, but more on that later.
“It’s a whirlwind,” admitted sophomore setter Sarah Nahas. “Every day something new is coming at us. You can never, ever expect what the next day is going to be like, because, truthfully, we haven’t had a normal day in a very long time.”
La Salle had a player for each position heading to George Washington on February 19 and all the Explorers did was win 22-25, 25-23, 24-26, 25-22, 17-15, as junior Elizabeth Osborn, an outside hitter from Portland, Oregon, went off for a career-high 27 kills, an ace, a block, and 16 digs.
Senior outside Samantha Graver had 19 kills, an assist, three aces, and 15 digs, and Nahas had two kills, a career-high 52 assists, five aces, two blocks, and two digs. (In 2019, Graver led La Salle with 402 kills.) And freshman libero Isa Lopez had 29 digs and six assists.
“Our mentality is more like, let’s be gritty, let’s go after this, and let’s have fun,” said Nahas, a 5-foot-9 product of Shorewood, Illinois, who basically waited two years to finally get the starting setter job.
The next day, La Salle — don’t even mention tired — won again, this time sweeping GWU as Osborn led with 15 kills, three aces, a block, and seven digs. Lopez had 23 more digs and two assists.
“We were riding high after winning those two matches,” Kroger recalled.
Next up was a February 26 match with George Mason. But that morning, Graver, a 5-10 outside from Allentown, making her the only other local player on the team, and also a Atlantic 10 first-teamer in 2019, texted Kroger to tell him she fell down the stairs in her apartment and broke her toe. And it was bad.
Then there were six.
The good news was the match was postponed.
The bad news? There were six.
Lopez, for one, was ready to continue, but she had perspective.
“There were plenty of other problems that my teammates were dealing with. Yes, I really wanted to play and it’s volleyball. I love playing volleyball and I’ll do it any day,” Lopez said. “But I also had to consider other people’s positions, too, like some people are dealing with other things involving their mental health, others are dealing with injuries they’ve continued to play on a long time, so that led into another bigger conversation that we to have.
“And luckily everyone was on board with playing with six and that’s what I wanted.”
Kroger said he got the call from his players “and they said, ‘We don’t know how this is gonna go and it might be ugly, but we want to end things on our own terms. We’re going to give it a shot.’
“So we had five days to figure it out and give it our best shot with six people.”
Kroger has coached club since he was a sophomore in college at Xavier, where he played men’s club volleyball. He also coached high school in Cincinnati and was an assistant at Villanova before joining the La Salle staff.
“There’s a lot of value to doing that because it puts you in weird situations where you’ve got to make stuff up,” Kroger said. “You’re not going to be able to put together a 15-person roster where you’ve got backup and everybody’s good. You’ve got to be a lot more creative.”
That meant that Osborn and Lopez would be the main passers.
“Isa Lopez was probably the program’s biggest-ever recruiting get.” Kroger said. “She won two national championships for TAV as the libero in 15s and 17s. She is unbelievably good.”
Lopez, whose TAV club teammates included LSU outside Paige Flickinger, Stanford middle Leilah Smith, and Madison Williams of Texas, said she was looking for something different, especially living somewhere other than Texas for the first time in her life. Kroger, for his part, offered a four-year scholarship.
“I was excited to experience something new,” Lopez said.
Technically, Lopez, liberally listed at 5-5, is playing right side, but she stays in left back all the time. She never attacks.
“For three rotations,” Kroger said with a laugh, “we had to figure out what we were doing with basically four people in the back row. We’re blocking with two people and our fourth person is usually our middle and we’re telling them to act like they’re front-row middles who guessed and committed in the wrong direction and then turned to pick up tips. It makes things as normal as possible.”
They finally played host to Mason on March 5 and won in a sweep. Osborn had 21 more kills, an assist, two aces, a solo block, and three digs. Sydney Stone, a sophomore outside from Avon, Ohio, had 10 kills, an assist, two blocks, and five digs, and Lopez had 21 digs, five assists, and an ace.
“The defense only works because Isa is so good,” Kroger said.
Nahas had two kills, 37 assists, two blocks, and four digs, and her team hit .269, which is really something considering the circumstances.
“The locker room afterwards, genuinely nobody knew what to say,” Nahas said. “We were overjoyed.”
On March 7, La Salle beat visiting Rhode Island in four.
“Sometimes I’m out of words,” Lopez said, “because I don’t know how we’re doing it but we’re doing it.”
Osborn led again, this time with 15 kills, two assists, a block, and 10 digs. Yaiza Franco, a freshman from Saint Paul, Minnesota, had nine kills, hit .333, and added four aces, a block, and 12 digs. Lopez had 26 digs, four assists, and two aces, and Nahas had six kills with one error in 11 attacks, 36 assists, two aces, two blocks, and 12 digs.
“We’re undefeated and that just doesn’t happen with six people on the court. It just doesn’t happen. It’s been crazy, fantastic, also very hard,” Nahas said. “it’s very hard to do and it’s not an easy path we’ve been on.”
To be fair, because the Atlantic 10 is not playing a full schedule, La Salle is not facing some of the better teams in the conference, like Dayton, Saint Louis, and VCU.
For a long time, a really long time, La Salle volleyball simply wasn’t competitive. For that matter, from 1992 to to 2014, the program reached double figures in victories just seven times. The Explorers were 1-31 when Schweihofer, then Caitlin Rimgaila, took over. In 2015, La Salle was 6-25. In the four years since the team has gone 10-20, 14-16, 18-12, and in 2019, with Kroger at the helm, 15-14, 8-6 in the A-10.
La Salle’s match this past Wednesday at Fordham was postponed and so was Friday’s home match with George Washington.
“It only gets weirder every single day,” Nahas cracked.
Next up, schedule willing, a visit from Fordham on Friday and Saturday. There’s another trip to Rhode Island scheduled for March 27 to end the regular season and then the A-10 tournament.
After that? Who knows?
Some of the players might continue their volleyball careers. Nahas, for one, needs one more year to get her nursing major at La Salle and, in theory, could not play next year, graduate, and have at least two more years of eligibility.
Lopez said she’s not sure what she’ll do and the others appear to be waiting to decide. Reilly Lowe, the senior middle from Lexington, Kentucky, will play another year at Eastern Kentucky.
And then there’s Kroger, who will go anywhere for the right job.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve learned over this past year is rolling with the punches and you’ve still got to find joy in every day,” Nahas said. “Luckily I’ve been able to do that with the help of my teammates. The girls on my team are phenomenal — my family, Andrew, every single person has helped make the crappy situation we’re in a little bit better.”