Marquette may be the new kid at the round-of-16 party, but this hardly a big turnaround season for the Golden Eagles. who are in the NCAA Tournament for the eighth year in a row.
But there are two things to note as 14th-seeded Marquette goes into its Friday match (11 a.m. Central, ESPNU) at third-seeded Illinois:
First, Creighton is not in the way.
And second, this is the best season in program history.
“This is a good group and I’m happy to spend another week with them,” fifth-year coach Ryan Theis said. “Hopefully we can string it out for two.”
Marquette is 28-6 overall and went 15-2 in the Big East. Worth noting is that both regular-season conference losses were to Creighton, which was seeded ninth but was upset in the second by Washington. Marquette then lost to Creighton in the Big East tournament title match. For that matter, outside of those matches with Creighton, Marquette lost one set in Big East play this season.
On the Golden Eagles’ resume are victories over NCAA Tournament teams Texas State, USC, Syracuse, and Illinois State. Those other three losses were to Baylor, BYU and Wisconsin, which Marquette could play on Saturday if it beats Illinois and Wisconsin beats San Diego.
“Last year we really hit our stride with culture and chemistry,” said Theis, whose 2017 team finished 22-10, 15-3 in the Big East, and then lost to Wisconsin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“It was a really young team and we were able to bring everybody back pretty much and have more success this year, which was kind of the plan, which is why we scheduled so difficult.”
Theis, who played at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, is a former assistant at Florida and who spent six years as the head coach at Ohio of the MAC, where he took four teams to the NCAA Tournament.
Allie Barber, a 6-foot-5 junior outside who was the 2017 Big East player of the year, is the linchpin of the offense.
Barber, a product of Cedarburg, Wisc. — just 22 miles north of Milwaukee — has 451 kills, 193 more than her next closest teammate, Anna Haak.
“I actually didn’t mean to go so close to home. I was trying to get a little farther away,” Barber admitted, “but when I visited I fell in love with it.”
Barber, one of the best-kept secrets on the national scene, averages 4.56 kills per set.
“There’s not a school in the country for whom she wouldn’t start,” a coach told VolleyballMag.com.
Barber, who played basketball in high school, was a middle on her prep and club teams. Her freshman year she played right side.
“That (next) spring we were short on bodies and had her hit on the left and nobody could stop her,” Theis recalled. “She’s extremely versatile. She’s a pretty special kid and is also a 4.0 pre-med major. She’s a pretty impressive person. No pro aspirations. She’s going straight to med school.”
In Marquette’s opening-round sweep of High Point, when it got to be the host for the first time, Barber has 12 kills with one error in 27 attacks and hit .407. Then in a sweep of Cincinnati, she had 18 more kills and hit .400.
“She’s one of the best in the game,” Theis said. “And she has a great ability to get to balls in different spots along the net and handle a variety of sets, from middle quicks in front to balls at the pin and the slide behind.
Playing Illinois — which is 30-3, has won 15 in a row and beat Marquette five years to the day when they play Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament — is quite a challenge. But it will have a fun element for Marquette middle Jenna Rosenthal, a 6-6 senior from Fond du Lac, Wisc., who leads the Golden Eagles in blocks with 95 (.96/set) and has 256 kills (2.59/set).
Rosenthal, who redshirted as a freshman, has been with USA Volleyball national teams the past three summers. This past May she played on the USA Volleyball Collegiate National Team that went 3-1 in China, a squad that was coached by Chris Tamas of Illinois. Among the other players on that team were Minnesota’s Stephanie Samedy, Wisconsin’s Dana Rettke, Kentucky’s Madison Lilley, and Creighton’s Taryn Kloth.
“In practice she’s always going above and beyond,” Barber said of Rosenthal.
The other senior is 5-11 Anna Haak, a senior outside from Sweden who transferred from Miami after her sophomore year.
“We didn’t know then what an integral part of our team that she would become,” Barber said.
This season, Haak is second on the team in kills with 258 kills (2.61/set), has 33 service aces, and is second on the team with 317 digs (3.20/set).
“She’s super high energy and she’s fun to be around,” Theis said. “And that’s contagious for the team.”
Haak played for the Swedish national team this past summer, joining her younger sister, Isabelle, an opposite who turned pro right away and quickly established herself as one of the top players in Europe.
Marquette runs a 6-2 with junior Lauren Speckman and sophomore Sarah Rose. Barber praised their setting and added, “they’re both good defensively, too.”
“It makes it really tough for people to put two on Barber and Rosenthal if we’re in that 6-2,” Theis said.
Hope Werch, in serve receive for six rotations, is one right side. She has 224 kills (2.24/set), leads the team in aces with 47, is third in digs with 217 (2.19/set) and has 38 blocks.
Barber, however, lines up on the right side, but mostly hits from the left. The other opposite spot is split between freshman Ellie Koontz and junior Madeline Mosher, whose younger sister, Claire, is a freshman setter on the team. They’re from Waterloo, Wisc. And here’s another tie to the Illinois match: The Moshers’ sister, Brooke, is an Illinois commit.
The libero is sophomore Martha Konovodoff, a product of Sugar Grove, Ill.
“I think a lot of what has happened is a culmination of getting some really good players and everyone just buying into the process and believing what the coaches are telling us,” Barber said. “And we did a lot of hard work in the offseason. We’ve all been here for summer school and do open gyms together and focus on getting better.
“We’ve had some really good players, too, and every year we keep getting better and better. We’ve had a really nice season so far and just hope to keep it going.”