The last 12 months have been a year of adversity, and the University of San Diego volleyball team has experienced plenty of it.
At times the Toreros were reduced to eight players, or down both head coach Jennifer Petrie and assistant Alfee Reft, or without any available middles.
But through it all. USD finished third in the West Coast Conference and got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament for the 11th year in a row. The Toreros (12-4) will play Southland Conference surprise champion Texas A&M-Corpus Christi (14-3) in Wednesday’s first round in Omaha. The winner plays the ACC’s Louisville on Thursday.
“It’s just been unbelievable, the hoops that we’ve jumped through to make the season happen,” Petrie said. “We’re so thankful to have this opportunity.”
Her team lost twice to BYU, which won the WCC, and split with Pepperdine, which finished second. San Diego has been to the NCAA round of 16 four times, in 2004, 2006, 2013, and 2018. In 2019 The Toreros beat Washington State in the first round before losing at Hawai’i.
“Knock on wood, we’re all ready to go,” Petrie said. “I feel really good about our chances going forward. ”
Petrie’s 22nd season has been her most challenging in a number of ways. At times the staff even split the team into two practice squads so that if one tested positive for COVID, the other could play.
“We started off the first six matches of the year with eight players, and after that we started to figure out the rules of the COVID game,” Petrie said.
And she explained in one long sentence:
“You can’t room with you, and you can’t be on the court with you, and we have to practice with you six on one court, and you six on the other, and every time they get together, we’re looking to see who can stand next to each other, who can be with each other, who can eat next to each other, there’s just so much on the periphery that’s not volleyball related to make this season successful, and our team has done a tremendous job recognizing what happens outside of the court affects what’s on the court.”
Playing a team like Texas A&M-Corpus Christi is a bit different for San Diego.
“We usually have some pretty stacked matchups in the very first round, usually we play a top-25 team, then a top-15 team like USC or UCLA,” said 6-fot-2 senior Roxie Wiblin, a product of Berkeley, California, who leads USD with 249 kills (4.22/set), and has 19 aces, is second on the team with 170 digs (2.88/set) and has 18 blocks.
“So this year we have a really exciting opportunity to play someone that we haven’t played before.”
Wiblin, a 6-2 left-side, has the opportunity to take 2021 as a COVID year, but is currently leaning towards playing professionally next year.
“Roxie Wiblin has just been our prototypical six-rotation outside hitter that can pass, she can defend, she can attack, she can serve, she has solidified every part of her game,” Petrie said.
“Not only has she dominated physically, but she has come into herself mentally and the leadership that she has provided this year has been outstanding.”
Fifth-year graduate student Thana Fayad, a 6-foot outside from Victoria, British Columbia, has 165 kills, hitting .317, and has 17 aces, 114 digs, and 22 blocks.
“Thana has been with us the longest,” Petrie said. “Her experience and her journey through USD has culminated in an amazing last year here in our program.
“Her commitment and dedication to being with our program for that long, and to see that end on such a high note, making the NCAA Tournament and winning her senior day match against Pepperdine, I’m just so proud that she’s having this experience.”
Wiblin said she and Fayad feed off each other.
“Our energy is very much like an infinity symbol, she’s on one side and I’m on the other, if I get up, then she gets up,” Wiblin said.
“I’ll feed off of her energy, she’ll feed off of mine, we give each other what we need in those moments. Maybe I’m not feeling as confident in my play, she will bring me back up and then I can help bring the rest of the team up.”
Grace Frohling, a 6-foot-5 sophomore right side from Los Angeles, has 151 kills, a team-best 23 aces, and leads with 47 blocks.
“Grace I’m just super-excited to have around, because if I’m losing these other pins, I need someone that’s going to be returning, taking a lot of swings and picking up this team,” Petrie said.
“It’s so exciting to know that the youth of this program gets to enjoy the leadership of these seniors, and it’s a snowball effect. She’s going to step into their shoes, and be the voice of USD, and she knows the expectations of this team and the program and the culture that’s been created by these seniors.
“I know that Grace will pick it up where these two left off, and the alumni will be there to support her all along the way.”
Frohling coaches at La Jolla Volleyball Club with Wiblin.
“Grace doesn’t act like a sophomore,” Wiblin said. “She’s very poised on the court, she’s very level-headed and definitely has a voice in practice and during games. She’s a force to be reckoned with. I look up to her every day in practice.”
“It’s been challenging, we’ve been on our toes, constantly having to adjust. You had to have faith that we could put anyone on the court in any position, and that’s what we did this year. We had outside Katie Lukes playing middle our last two games, just trusting in each other that we could throw in wherever we need. This season has just been flexible for everyone.”
More than anything, Frohling hopes to honor USD’s seniors in the upcoming tournament.
“We want to make this year special for our seniors, with our last game against Pepperdine, it was magical out there, and hopefully we can carry that into the tournament and play for them, it’s their last chance. If there’s any year to do it, it’s this year.”
Texas A&M-Corpus Christi went 9-3 in the Southland Conference this spring. After beating fifth-seeded Houston Baptist in four in the SLC tournament, the fourth-seeded Islanders stunned top-seeded Stephen F. Austin in the semifinals. Not only did TAMUCC win, it swept and moved into the final with second-seeded Sam Houston.
In that match, which the Islanders won 25-19, 34-36, 25-23, 13-25, 15-12, four players had 12 or more kills, including senior middle Hannah Froeschl with 17 and five blocks, one solo. Rachel Young, a junior middle, had 16 kills. Sophomore setter Faith Panhans had eight kills, 62 assists, an ace, and nine digs. Sophomore libero Carissa Barnes had 36 digs, seven assists, and an ace.
To say that the Islanders have a lot of weapons would be an understatement. Chloe Simon leads Texas A&M-Corpus Christi with 197 kills, Young has 196, Froeschl 126, Montez Uigaese 122, Kylie Filipiak 117, and Panhans 109. Panhans, who averages 10.06 assists, also 17 aces, but Barnes has a whopping 40, .61/set. Froeschl leads with 37 digs and Young has 32.