West Virginia sits at an impressive 11-2, riding a nine-match winning streak heading into the start of Big 12 Conference play later this week.
But the Mountaineers, under the direction of longtime Division I head coach Reed Sunahara, found itself at a crossroads of sorts after being thumped by Penn State at its own WVU Invitational in late August. Thumped as in losing by a combined 39 points in the three sets.
“That was the learning point,” said Sunahara, now in his third season at the helm in Morgantown. “Penn State is a great team. I thought that was the point where the kids saw that they needed to get a ton better and needed to work better and continue to learn.”
West Virginia sophomore outside hitter Katelyn Evans, from Palmdale, Calif., labeled the Penn State match “brutal.”
“Obviously, Penn State is a great team,” she said. “We did some OK things in our two matches prior to playing them. They poked holes in all the things we thought we did all right and then they exposed some other things. We went back in the gym and fixed what we needed to fix.”
And all that fixing propelled the Mountaineers forward.
West Virginia hit the road the next weekend to Minneapolis where it faced No. 1 Minnesota, Tennessee and Texas-San Antonio. Even though the Mountaineers lost to Hugh McCutcheon’s highly touted Minnesota squad, Sunahara saw a major difference in his team.
“That was a good weekend for us,” said Sunahara, who as a player won three NCAA titles at UCLA under legendary coach Al Scates. “Unfortunately we lost to Minnesota, but that was a great experience. We played in front of more than 5,000 fans, played well and got better as the match went on. The next day we beat Tennessee and UTSA and that was the turning point for the run we are on right now.”
Sunahara is thrilled about the atmosphere that has been created in the Mountaineers’ gym.
“It’s a great group of kids,” he said. “They work hard and they get along. The team chemistry is good. These kids want to build something special. They work their butts off and work together. Everything is positive. It’s nice to see.”
Evans added: “The chemistry this year is crazy. Everybody gets along whether it’s freshmen, seniors, juniors and sophomores.”
Sunahara, who had the benefit of returning a good chunk of his roster from last year’s team, pointed to ball control as a key piece to the strong start. West Virginia welcomed three freshmen defensive specialists — Alexa Hasting (Plant City, Ohio), Lindsay Proctor (Grand Island, N.Y.) and Ava Richards (Boynton Beach, Fla.) — who have made immediate impacts.
“It’s the freshmen,” Sunahara said. “They have come in and done a really good job. We’ve added to what we had last year and those freshmen have filled some of the pieces and have come through.”
West Virginia won the Army Knights Invitational in West Point, N.Y., this weekend where Evans was named the MVP. Evans hit .402 and averaged 4.08 kills per set, while adding seven blocks during the weekend. Other all-tournament selections included sophomore setter Erin Slinde (10.2 assists per set at West Point) and Hasting (3.50 digs per set).
Payton Caffrey, a sophomore outside hitter out of Chuluota, Fla., has a five-kill advantage (136-131) over Evans for the team lead.
Through the first 13 matches, West Virginia is hitting .252, but opponents are swinging at an anemic .140 against the Mountaineers. During the current nine-match winning streak, West Virginia has hit .300 or better in five of those matches (another match it hit .293).
“The No. 1 thing has been ball control,” said Sunahara. “We’re a lot better on defense. Early on, we were hitting, but we weren’t managing swings that well. We’re doing that better now and we’re still getting better.”
Slinde also drew praise from Sunahara, who pointed out the Minnesota native started last year as a freshman.
“We are where we are at right now because of the hard work we’ve put in over the summer,” he said.
Now, West Virginia turns its attention to Big 12 play that starts Wednesday against TCU. National power Texas comes to town on Saturday. The Mountaineers were picked to finish sixth in the conference preseason poll as voted on by the Big 12 coaches.
“We’re going to take it one match at a time,” said Sunahara, whose coaching career includes being on the U.S. women’s national team staff, 11 years at Cincinnati and one season at Buffalo before coming to West Virginia.
“We’re working to be the best we can be and do the best we can. This is a team that never has been to the NCAA tournament. That’s the goal. That’s why these kids really want to make an impact and do something special before they leave here.”
Evans said Sunahara always stresses the season is broken up into three parts: preseason, conference and postseason.
“Unfortunately West Virginia has never been to the postseason,” she said. “We’re excited. We want to do well in the Big 12 and hopefully move on and do something the program has never done before.”