You could say that Marquette is hitting on all cylinders. And the 17th-ranked Golden Eagles have been doing so since the 2022 season began, when they opened with a five-set victory at then-No. 11 Kentucky
When Aubrey Hamilton’s final kill hit the floor on the Kentucky side of the net this past August 28, she and her Marquette teammates burst into celebration. But it wasn’t just that it was a season-opener that made the win exciting. It wasn’t even knocking off a highly regarded team.
It was the first test for a roster that was overhauled in the offseason. Graduation took three all-Big East players, including two unanimous selections, outside hitter Hope Werch and setter Taylor Wolf.
So when the players and ninth-year coach Ryan Theis got together for practices in January, there was a lot to sift through.
Hamilton had transferred from Notre Dame. Peruvian setter Yadhira “Ya-Ya” Anchante was fresh out of Iowa Western Community College. Setter/outside hitter Ella Foti, from Madison, Wisconsin, and middle blocker Hattie Bray, from Hancock, Wisconsin, redshirted in 2021 as freshmen.
Theis had an inkling of what the group might be able to accomplish. He just needed hard evidence.
Marquette, hitting .288 as a team, good for 10th in the NCAA, is now 20-2 overall, 11-1 in the Big East, and riding a five-match winning streak. The Golden Eagles play host to Georgetown on Friday and Villanova on Saturday.
Marquette’s only losses to were to conference rival Creighton, up to No. 13 in the AVCA Poll this week, and reigning national champion Wisconsin of the Big Ten. Marquette is No. 12 in the all-important NCAA RPI, which means the Golden Eagles are in the hunt for one of the coveted top-16 NCAA Tournament seeds.
Last season, Marquette, making its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years, lost in the first round to Dayton.
“One of the biggest things coming in with a whole new group is we had to kind of find our culture, our style of play,” said sophomore Jenna Reitsma, one of the most battle-tested players on the current roster despite her relative youth. “From the start, it was a lot of team building, finding that chemistry with each other and finding out how each other plays, what our playing styles were.”
Added Reitsma, a 5-foot-11 outside from Lowell, Michigan, “As we have been progressing, we’ve just been getting more comfortable with each other and realizing we work really well together.”
Theis said he tries to look at his team in January and see what it can do better the next season.
“We said we were going to run it faster,” Theis said. “We were kind of concerned about the passing, so we had to find ways our better passers could take more space and use angles. They adapted to it well.”
That put a lot of onus on Anchante. Theis ran a 5-2 offense last season with Wolf and Claire Mosher, but he had faith in Anchante that she could handle a 6-1.
The product of Lima, Peru, has responded by averaging 10.73 assists per set (11.39 in Big East matches). She also has contributed 80 kills and 20 aces.
“She runs the offense so fluidly,” Reitsma said. “She’s really been comfortable with changing and how she can adjust to each hitter. She just has good decision-making on who has the best option.
“One thing, too, is she’s just a calm, positive-energy player. She brings a lot of comfort and excitement to the team.”
She also has been a key to the Golden Eagles’ defensive effort. Theis cited the need for better passing, and the team has delivered. Senior libero Carly Skrabak, who is from Franklin, Tennessee, averages 4.37 digs per set in conference matches.
Reitsma averages 2.98 digs per set, Anchante is at 2.66 and Hamilton, the junior outside from Hartland, Wisconsin, 2.26 in conference.
Reitsma typically fills the stat sheet. In addition to her 2.98 digs per set in Big East Matches, she also has 16 total blocks, averages 2.95 kills per set and has a team-leading 20 aces. She is second in the Big East in aces with 0.50 per set in conference matches.
“She’s kind of our do-it-all,” Theis said. “She holds her own for an undersized blocker. She gets her hands in really good spots. She’s good defensively. Reall, at all six skills she’s a really proficient player.
“Her numbers don’t wow anybody, but she’s kind of the engine that makes us go.”
Also helping the Golden Eagles’ defense has been the emergence of middle blockers Bray and Carsen Murray. Murray, a 6-4 junior from Lee’s Summit, Missouri, and Bray are 1-2 in Big East matches in hitting percentage, .456 and .443, respectively, and have combined for 200 kills.
Murray, along with Skrabak, was cited by Theis as the players who perhaps have improved the most and who continue on an upward trajectory.
“(Skrabak) and Carsen Murray, over the last 20 months, have really improved,” he said. “It’s been fun to watch those two.”
Murray and Bray were particularly instrumental in Marquette’s five-set win over upset-minded DePaul on October 26. Bray had 21 kills and hit .500 to go with three blocks, and Murray had 17 kills and hit .536 and had seven blocks.
Murray leads the Big East with 1.32 blocks per set in conference play. It all adds up to Marquette ranking second in the Big East to Creighton in opponent hitting percentage, .155.
“We’re a bit better behind the block this year, and our block is a little better as well,” Theis said. “Put those two together and it makes for a better defensive team.”
Hamilton has been quite the nice addition for the Golden Eagles. She was solid in her two years at Notre Dame, which included making the ACC all-freshman team. Hamilton ranks among the top 10 in the Big East in kills per set (3.51) in conference matches, registering double-digit kills in all but four matches.
Reitsma said Hamilton has been an invaluable addition, bringing from Notre Dame the moxie of knowing she’s been in big matches before.
“I think that Aubrey coming in, especially in the spring, she just brought another piece to our puzzle of well-rounded players,” Reitsma said. “She’s got a great arm on the outside. She has brought us a lot of momentum.
“She’s done a lot of point scoring for us this year. Having her on the court, we know she’s always going to give us those swings that we need.”
Added Theis: “She has really enjoyed it. She would say we brought back some spark in her volleyball life that maybe had been gone for a little while. She fits in great … Her arm can score points, so people have to worry about it.”
The results are apparent now, but on that August day in Lexington, no one in a navy and gold uniform was quite sure what to expect. Especially going against a team the caliber of Kentucky.
The Golden Eagles stormed out of the gate, taking the first two sets, only to see the Wildcats rally to force a fifth.
It was a situation where a team easily could have folded, but Marquette was up to the challenge, and came away with the five-set victory.
Another five-set win over a bigger program, then-No. 25 Illinois, followed in mid-September.
“We didn’t have a ton of expectations going into that (Kentucky) match,” Reitsma said. “We knew we could be good. We didn’t have that, ‘Oh this team should be better than us.’ No. We don’t know what teams should be better than us.
“I think that played a big role in us being confident on the court, and I think we’ve kind of carried that over. We just keep proving that we can do these things, not that we shouldn’t do these things. Even though we’re new, we belong in these spots. We belong in these games that our big.”
After this weekend, Marquette goes to Providence and Connecticut before returning home to play Xavier and, in the regular-season finale, Creighton. That match is November 19 in Milwaukee in the Al McGuire Center on the Marquette campus. Then the Big East Championship is at Creighton. The conference gets an automatic bid, but it’s a given that both Creighton and Marquette will be in the NCAA Tournament.
In their first meeting, October 14 in Omaha, Creighton lost the first two sets and then stormed back to win 21-25, 22-25, 25-19, 25-16, 15-8. Theis said his team simply couldn’t get its offense going in the final set.
“We’re learning that if our offense sputters, why,” Theis said. “We actually talked about that (during the DePaul match). We’ve learned if we get behind, what happens to our serve and our mentality. We’re trying to address that on a weekly basis.”
Reitsma said the Golden Eagles are ready for the home stretch.
“I think over time, our whole difficult preseason schedule and even going into our conference, we started to unlock each part of our play,” Reitsma said. “Creighton is definitely a great team, and it’s always one of the biggest matches we look forward to in conference.
“It’s usually Creighton and us fighting for that Big East (top) spot. It’s always a fun game to play Creighton, and I’m sure they would say the same thing.”