Buffalo, loaded with freshmen and sophomores, building toward contending in MAC

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Milla Malik attacks for Buffalo/ Paul Hokanson, UB Athletics

A first-time head coach in just his third year at the helm.

A roster full of freshmen and sophomores.

A program that has finished above .500 in conference play just once in this millennium.

A program with zero history in the NCAA Tournament.

On the surface, Buffalo wouldn’t appear to be much of a threat to upset the volleyball hierarchy in the Mid-American Conference. And being picked last in the MAC East Division preseason poll seems to confirm the Bulls’ status as an expected also-ran.

That’s not how the players and coaches at Buffalo view it. Though coach Scott Smith acknowledged his program still might be a year away from being a serious contender in the MAC, he believes the Bulls are on the right track and can push the conference’s traditional front-runners sooner rather than later.

Buffalo opened MAC play last weekend by sweeping two matches from Miami (Ohio), a team it lost to twice last season. If the Bulls can stun conference favorite Bowling Green on Friday, it would be the first time the program has started 3-0 in the MAC.

A small but significant step.

“It’s a really tall order,” Smith said about the upcoming matches with BGSU. “They’ve got a lot of strong pieces. But I like what we’re doing, and I think we have a good opportunity to battle them.

“But we’re still that underdog. We haven’t proven ourselves yet. We still have a long way to go before I can say definitively we should win this conference. But I do think we can compete with any team on any given night.”

The Bulls enter the weekend at 9-5 overall — already more than twice as many matches as they won last season in their 22-match schedule. Even in defeats, they are proving to be more competitive, as evidenced by close matches with Power 5 teams Syracuse and West Virginia.

For Smith, these are tangible signs of the strides his program is making. And in this, his third season at the helm, he said Buffalo really is beginning to feel like his program.

Smith served as an assistant under previous coach Blair Brown Lipsitz, so making the transition to the top job was seamless. Smith recruited most of the players on the roster, and the team already was using several strategies of his invention.

In his first season at the helm, 2019, the Bulls went 8-8 in the MAC and won a match in the conference tournament for the first time since 2009. Last spring, Buffalo took a significant step back, finishing 4-18 in an all-MAC schedule.

But there were extenuating circumstances that stunted the team’s growth. Andrea Mitrovic, a Canadian of Serbian descent, transferred to Arizona State after the 2018 season. Mitrovic, a sophomore at the time, led the team in kills that season, so her departure left a gaping hole in the offense.

Her transfer caused other dominoes to fall as two incoming Serbian players opted out of the program. That left one class of recruits — the class that would be juniors this season — a little thin.

So over the past two seasons, Smith had to build almost from the ground up.

On top of having a young, largely inexperienced roster, Smith started to make some changes in the Bulls’ offense, specifically being more aggressive with out-of-system attacking. With no preseason because of the pandemic-interrupted schedule last season, the team got on-the-job training in the new strategies.

Scott Smith

“It was our 11th or 12th match before we even won a set,” Smith said. “That would typically be all of our preseason where you could play with these things and learn, but we were kind of thrown right into the MAC. There were no matches where you get to have a breather and try something new.”

It actually was in the ninth match when Buffalo finally won a set, and the Bulls lost their first 10 matches and 14 of their first 15, winning only nine sets in that stretch.

But a few diamonds began to emerge from the rough. Chief among them was then-freshman outside hitter Milla Malik, who wound up earning MAC all-freshman honors as well as second-team all-conference honors.

All that after having an emergency appendectomy just before the Bulls’ opening match and missing the first eight matches.

“I don’t feel like it set me behind,” she said. “I mean, I’ve waited — how long? — four years to play college volleyball. So I was so anxious to get ready to play. I was excited no matter what. If anything, it pushed me to get better.”

And Malik managed to put up her numbers — she led the team with 226 kills (3.77 per set) last season and has 202 (3.67 per set) this season — despite being only 5-foot-9.

“We knew her skills were there,” Smith said. “We were a little worried about her height and would she be able to translate what she was doing in the club scene and the high school scene to Division I volleyball.

“She’s not the biggest, so we are constantly talking to her about needing to be smarter and really see the block in front of her and understand the defense she is attacking so she can continually mix up her shots.”

Added Malik: “I knew I could perform at that level, but I rely on my teammates a lot. For me to do well, I need a great pass from our defenders and a great set from our setters.”

Malik is getting plenty of help, much of it from fellow freshmen and sophomores. Freshman Maria Futey, also an outside hitter, is third on the team with 108 kills. She is listed at 5-9, but Smith said she is closer to 5-7.

Futey might not always get a kill (1.96 per set) or hit for a high percentage (.116), Smith said, but she plays well defensively (second on the team with 151 digs) and makes few hitting errors. She also is tied for the team lead with 15 aces.

Futey isn’t the only player who has risen to the occasion. Sophomore middle Olivia DeBortoli (6-2) has become a force on defense after missing 2019 with an injury and playing only nine sets last season.

She came in mid-match against Troy on September 4 when junior Abby Leigh went out with a concussion. All she did was amass nine blocks and earn MAC Defensive Player of the Week honors.

She is averaging more than a block a set, coming up with 12 across the two victories over Miami (Ohio).

“The one thing she always has done well in practice is block,” Smith said. “She’s a natural blocker. She’s great with her hands and gets in the way all the time. It’s just been great to see her step into that role when she maybe wasn’t thinking she was going to get that opportunity.”

Added junior Courtney Okwara: “She hasn’t seen a lot of games in our previous two seasons, but this season she’s really shown who she is as a middle blocker.”

Buffalo’s Courtney Okwara/Paul Hokanson, UB Athletics

Okwara (6-1), one of the few juniors or seniors in the Bulls’ regular rotation, has come into her own as well. Also a middle, Okwara has 120 kills (2.26 per set) this season in 53 sets, only two kills fewer than she had last season in 25 more sets. She also has 42 blocks, only 10 off her total from last season.

“The biggest thing with Courtney is just pure athleticism,” said Smith, noting he prefers players with superior athleticism. He believes when the day comes that Buffalo gets to the NCAA Tournament, an athletic lineup will help the Bulls compete against “the bigger more athletic Power 5 teams MAC teams always seem to face in the first round.”

“She’s touching about 10-8, so she’s attacking at a much higher point than anyone in our conference sees. She’s really found a connection with our freshman setter.”

That freshman setter is Mandy Leigh, Abby’s younger sister. Mandy was no stranger to the program, having watched her sister’s matches the prior two years and getting to know some of the players through her sister.

Mandy Leigh is averaging 9.8 assists per set in Smith’s 5-1 system and is tied with Futey and Malik for the team lead in aces.

Another freshman, Hannah Jacoby, leads the team in digs (156), and sophomore right side Emma Gielas has 105 kills (2.84 per set).

Having so many freshmen and sophomores means the team is largely short on experience. What they do have working in their favor is time. The core of the team — barring anything unforeseen — has two more years together.

That opportunity to grow together, Malik said, will be an asset down the road.

“We’ve been able to create our own culture, and we do grow together, and I think that’s a beautiful thing to be able to grow from such a young age,” she said. “And you can see it on the court now. We’re still a young team, but we’re doing better this year and I think it’s because we do get to grow together.

“I think we have a very tight-knit group. We have a lot of support for each other. Sometimes that’s hard to find in teams, and I think we do a great job of holding each other up and having unity within the program.”

Added Okwara: “I just love how (the young players) show up on the court no matter what their age, no matter who they’re up against. They’re still doing their best.”

In addition to growing together as a group, Smith said, the players are growing in their understanding of the game. He said the players are doing a lot more film study this season, delving into the minutiae of matches so they will be able to make their own adjustments on the fly.

“We kind of slow things down and make sure they really understand what we’re doing and what we’re trying to accomplish,” he said. “So in the middle of a match, they don’t need us to call a timeout and tell them how to change their positioning on the court or kind of counteract what our opponent is doing.”

The results of that are starting to show. The past couple of seasons, Smith said, the team would be victimized by self-inflicted wounds. Now, they are beginning to cut down on unforced errors and playing more consistent volleyball.

All that remains to be seen is if these ingredients can produce a MAC contender.

Will it be this season? Smith isn’t ruling it out, but he does attach the aforementioned caveat of possibly needing one more year of seasoning — as well as one more good recruiting class — to put the Bulls over the top.

It is a program clearly with an eye toward the future. But its present is looking more promising than at possibly any time in its history.

Okwara said she is confident the rest of the MAC isn’t going to see the same Buffalo team they have in the past.

“I’m sure a lot of teams have been doubting us,” she said, “but I think we have shown this season who we are as a program, and I think teams definitely will respect us more.”

Smith agreed, and he is eager to see what the upcoming matches bring.

“It still feels like every weekend we do something the program has never seen before,” he said.

Chuck Curti is a sports writer/copy editor for the Tribune-Review and TribLive.com, Greensburg, Pa.
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