LSU has the most ambitious preseason schedule it’s had in years.
It just worked out that way, but the timing couldn’t be better.
The Tigers have been the talk of the NCAA volleyball offseason because of who has transferred into the program, one that in the past has not had a lot of players who started elsewhere.
“This is definitely the highest number of people that I did not recruit from their freshman year into our program,” said coach Fran Flory, who is starting her 24th season at LSU.
“It’s certainly the highest number of impactful players that are going to walk in and be on the court right away. I’m excited about that chance for all of them and for us.”
The influx began when outside hitter Hannah Brister, who had been the MVP of the Southland Conference in 2019, left another Louisiana school, Northwestern State, for LSU. Brister’s original intention was to play beach but realized she probably wouldn’t crack the powerful LSU beach lineup. Subsequently, the graduate student was third in kills for the Tigers last spring.
Then 6-foot-4 graduate-student outside Kylie Deberg, a VolleyballMag.com second-team All-American last spring for Missouri, came to Baton Rouge, also expecting to play beach at LSU. Which she still plans to do, but because everyone got an extra year, is now in the Tigers’ gym.
Oklahoma outside Sanaa Dotson, second in kills for the Sooners, transferred to LSU after two seasons in Norman.
LSU, which finished 9-13, all in the SEC, last spring, already returned a quality core group.
The main cog the past three seasons has been Taylor Bannister, a 6-5 senior right side who was a VolleyballMag.com honorable-mention All-American, second to league-leader Deberg in the SEC in kills last season and seventh in the conference in aces. She led LSU with 57 blocks.
“I don’t take transfers very often,” Flory said. “There’s got to be some compelling reason for me to take a transfer. I’m old school and people transfer for reasons and it’s not always the coach.
“I’ll look at circumstances and reasons and certainly I’ve taken a few over the years, but not many.”
There’s also another transfer on the roster in defensive specialist Emmaline Walters, who played two seasons at Illinois and then the last two years at LSU. She got her degree in interdisciplinary studies and was summa cum laude as she starts graduate school.
Deberg, who is also a tremendous weapon out of the back row, averaged 4.76 kills per set. Bannister, also powerful from the back row, averaged 4.38 kills.
The 6-foot Dotson, daughter of former NFL standout Santana Dotson, averaged 3.36 kills last season, and Brister 2.44.
“If you just look at the kills we gained, our point-scoring opportunities increased immediately,” Flory said. “We’re going to have the numbers of points to score to be amongst the elite teams, if you just look at us on paper.”
There will be quite a battle to see who plays outside hitter. Deberg is a lock at one spot, but you not only have Dotson and Brister, but also Paige Flickinger, who was second to Bannister in kills as a freshman for LSU last year. The 5-9 sophomore averaged 2.27 kills and was second on the team in digs. Flickinger is also being considered as a DS or libero.
LSU, sadly, lost Samarah Hill, who tore her Achilles tendon this summer. She was also injured most of last season, but 6-1 junior was second on the team in kills in 2019. Freshman Ellie Echter also hopes to get in the mix.
Deberg, from Hudson, Iowa, started her career at Illinois, but left for Missouri afer her freshman year. Mizzou went to the NCAA Tournament all three years and Deberg left No. 9 on the school’s all-time kills list and third in aces.
Everyone thought she was going to just play beach at LSU, “including me,” Flory said.
“She decided last July, before we knew COVID was going to destroy our season and we were going to get another year of eligibilty across the board. She was coming to play beach at LSU. She was searching for a beach program, really liked (LSU beach coach Russell Brock), and I never dreamt she would be playing for me ever.
“She commits, and then we hear (from the NCAA) we’re going to get another year of eligibilty.”
Brock wondered if she would stay one more fall season at Missouri. Deberg said she was done with indoors and was coming to LSU regardless. Ultimately, however, Deberg changed her mind and asked Flory for a chance.
Flory told her: “I already talked to Russell and the key is I’ve got to give him an hour a week in the fall of your 20 hours of training for you to go out on the sand and learn how to set on the beach because nobody’s going to serve you outdoors, so you’d better become a good setter and you don’t know how to hand-set on the beach.”
Flory said she has the same arrangement with Brister, who is from Paincourtville, Louisiana, about an hour’s drive from LSU.
Bannister, from Missouri City near Houston, didn’t make the AVCA honorable-mention All-American team. But you can rest assured when opponents play LSU they spend plenty of time trying to figure out how to stop her.
Dotson, also from Houston area, “is super fast,” Flory said. “She has a speedy arm and is rangy on defense. Our blocking on the left side gets better if she can win that spot.”
LSU is solid at one middle in 6-2 senior Whitney Foreman, another Houston product who averaged 1.93 kills and was second to Bannister with 54 blocks, 16 solo. She drew high praise from Flory for her work since last season and leadership.
The other middle is the X factor. Anita Anwusi, a 6-3 junior from Houston who is powerful and a superior leaper — she’s touched better than 11 feet — had 51 blocks last spring, and is one of those players who, when it happens, will make a quantum leap.
“She’s so much better, she’s trained so much harder, and she’s invested in the game,” Flory said. “She’s been watching more video. Really and truly, the first year and a half was teaching her how to approach and having some oreintation to the ball. She still has some progress to make, but she’s really developed technically.”
Alia Williams is the third middle, but the 6-1 sophomore is, interestingly, also being trained as LSU’s backup setter because the only other setter on the roster in two-year starter Karli Rose, a high-jumping athletic 5-6 junior — she touched 10-7, Flory said — who thrives despite her height, or lack of it.
Rose, from Tomball near Houston, was not as good as a sophomore as she was as a freshman.
“She got in her own way last year,” Flory said, adding that Rose has worked hard “and made great strides,” especially in the weight room.
Graduate-student Raigen Cianciulli has been LSU’s libero and the product of Spring near Houston is the program’s all-time digs leader. But she will get competition from both Flickinger and junior Jill Bohnet, who was the libero at times last season. And freshman Ella Larkin, a 5-10 freshman from Wichita whose father Scott played volleyball at BYU and then professionally, is also in the libero mix, Flory said.
“There will be a battle to get the jersey for the first time in Ragan’s career,” Flory said.
Cianciulli graduated from LSU in May 2020 with a degree in finance, then last May got her MBA.
“She’s got so many degrees, she’s not worried about school, she’s not got those challenges, she’s just getting a certification. I don’t know what it is but whatever it is she’s gonna make a hell of a lot more money than I do,” Flory said with a laugh.
“If Ragan Cianciulli decides and has the confidence to do what she’s capable of, she’ll leave them in the rear-view mirror. I believe that.”
LSU hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since losing to San Diego in the first round in 2017.
Flory is understandably fired up.
Preseason will be fun,” Flory said. “I’m excited to get them in the gym.”
The SEC brings its own challenges. The highlight of LSU’s home schedule includes back-to-back mid-October visits from perennial favorite Florida and then league’s first NCAA champion, Kentucky.
But before that, the opening weekend, August 27-29, LSU has Michigan, Northern Arizona, and Florida State visiting Baton Rouge.
Then the Tigers go to Penn State to play Iowa State, Oregon State, and the home team.
The third weekend they go to Houston to play Rice and Sam Houston, and then finish the preseason in Birmingham, Alabama, where they play Samford and Troy.
“I think everybody on our schedule is going to win a lot of matches,” Flory said. “As a coach, scheduling is a huge part of my job in terms of creating post-season opportunities and I think this is a schedule that creates an opportunity for the team that we have.”