But then came a spate of injuries as the Lions grinded to a 15-15 finish, 9-9 in the always-tough West Coast Conference.
“We’ve gained experience and had players who had to step in and step up, but now you can tell that the buy-in is extremely high with what we’re doing and how we’re doing it,” said Aaron Mansfield who starts his fourth season when play begins in the spring. “It’s hard losing. We’re all competitive, and no matter what the injuries are, we had some matches that we felt we should have won last year. It was hard on everyone.”
What made it harder were all those players getting hurt.
“Injuries happen to every team,” said coach Aaron Mansfield. “It was the first time in my coaching career that it hit me this hard.”
Hard might be an understatement.
“Our two starting outside hitters, Megan Rice and Rose Booth, had season-ending injuries. Meredith Teague, our top middle, tore her ACL two games into conference play, and our starting libero, Mary Shroll, had a season-ending ankle injury in preseason,” Mansfield said.
“We piece-mealed a team together that finished .500, and honestly, I think we did the best we could. Had we been healthy and firing on all cylinders, I like our chances to finish near the top of the conference and maybe even have a chance to win the conference.”
The Lions have a youthful look, featuring four freshmen and five sophomores on their 13-person roster.
“We’ve got some kids that possess some pretty good physical characteristics in terms of jumping abilities, arm swing ability and point scoring ability,” Mansfield said. “We just lack experience playing volleyball at a college level. We’ll be freshmen and sophomores predominantly.
“Our coaching staff is pretty patient and we don’t expect our players to figure out the things that they need to do in order to be successful right away. It can take a long time to learn and grow.”
After four weeks of training, Mansfield sees a lot of promise in the young Lions. In particular, Mansfield sees four players as “foundational in what we want to accomplish.”
Kari Geissberger, a 6-foot-5 freshman outside from Greenbrae, California, could make an immediate impact. Geissberger was ranked highly coming out of Marin Catholic by PrepVolleyball and was a member of last spring’s VolleyballMag.com Fab 50.
“She has the ability to score in a lot of different spots,” Mansfield said. “She’s going to be a high-volume attacker for us.”
Booth, a 6-1 sophomore outside from Portland, Oregon, only played 20 matches and was still second on the team with 242 kills (3.32/set).
“She’s healthy, she was the Gatorade player of the year in Oregon, and she’s had a really, really nice training session so far,” Mansfield said. “She continues to improve and get stronger.”
Both will have to step up with the graduation of Savannah Slattery, who led the Lions with 412 kills.
Freshman Isabella Bareford, a 5-9 setter from Long Beach, also shows promise, Mansfield said.
“She has come in and shown that she’s ready to compete at this level right away. I’m really impressed with her. Not only her setting skills, but also her ability to run an offense and lead.”
Another Gatorade player of the year is 6-2 Audrey Klemp, a redshirt freshman from Lansing, Kansas.
“She hits and she sets,” Mansfield said, “and she does both of those things pretty well, so we’re trying to figure out where she fits best in our system.”
Mansfield, 38, lives in North Torrance with his wife, Lindsey, and two young sons. His eight-mile commute to LMU, right near LAX, sometimes takes 30 minutes, but traffic has been light during the pandemic. Mansfield, who was an All-American libero at UC Santa Barbara, coached at his alma mater for five years before moving to Santa Clara, where he was the associate head coach of the indoors team and had coach of the beach program.
His LMU coaching staff includes Ben Lee, also entering his fourth year, and third-year asistant Natalie Morgan.
“Ben’s been around the game of volleyball for a long time and he’s coached a lot of different levels,” Mansfield said. “He’s coached club, high school and at Arizona State. What really stuck out to me about Ben is that he’s also held a lot of different jobs in different industries, too. He’s got a marketing background, he’s got a tech background, he’s got a sales background. So he’s really kind of a jack of all trades.
“He’s very in tune with kind of the science and art of teaching and coaching and has a really advanced understanding of the game.”
Morgan played a season at Oregon State and was later the technical coordinator at Nebraska, which included being on staff for the 2015 NCAA title.
“Natalie is really a high energy coach and recruiting coordinator,” Mansfield said. “She’s very well connected with a lot of club directors throughout the country. She’s a great representative of LMU volleyball, which is talking to recruits and, and educating them about our programs. And she’s a relentless worker. This is exactly what she wants to do, the industry that she wants to be in.
“She’s putting in a ton of work to learn the ropes of recruiting and coaching. She just dove in headfirst. I’ve been really fortunate with our staff.”
And that part about not playing this fall? The staff has certainly had its challenges since the pandemic started.
“About half of our team has had COVID at some point in the last seven months,” Mansfield said. “So our players have empathy in how it makes you feel. They all came back from it fine, and went through all the protocols, the cardiovascular tests, and all those things. Everything’s good and we’ve been able to practice without incident for the last three and a half weeks.”
LMU tests 25% of its players and coaches once a week. As with most programs around the country, much of the fall was spent in Zoom meetings, Mansfield said.
“We were probably similar to a lot of other schools during quarantine, just trying to keep our group connected through zoom sessions and keep our group motivated to take care of their bodies and their minds. And we’re, we’re really sensitive to the mental health of our players.
“We spent a lot of time, just having one-on-one talks with them a couple of times a week centered around nothing that was volleyball related. We never watched film. We had a topic of the week that we would learn about and discuss.
“Obviously, one of things was the George Floyd incident and there’s a lot of stuff going on in the world that evokes different emotions in our girls.
“We definitely came out of it closer, which was, which was my goal going into it.
“We can’t play volleyball. What we can do is learn more about each other, learn more about ourselves and try to become more connected as a group. There’s no magic answer. We just put a lot of time and effort into making sure that we communicated with our team really often.”
For his part, Mansfield is relieved to be back in the gym, working towards the WCC spring season.
“I’m just happy to be back in the gym, being able to do what I love and, and be around the people that I care a lot about just trying to just try and help them grow. And yeah, I just feel fortunate that I get to do something I love to do.”