Sun Belt-champion South Alabama hoping for more “newness” in NCAA Tournament

Jesse Ortiz has experienced a lot of “new” this year.

He landed his first head-coaching job — at South Alabama in March. That necessitated a move to a new area and the purchase of a new house.

He also became a father for the first time.

More recently, his women’s volleyball team collected some new hardware: the Sun Belt championship trophy. It was a first for the program, and it took the Jaguars into new territory: the NCAA Tournament.

The Jaguars (25-6, 15-1 Sun Belt) will play Thursday in Gainesville against Miami (24-4, 15-3 ACC). Florida, the host and No. 16 seed, will play Florida A&M in the other match.

“It’s definitely been way more than I could have ever have anticipated or asked for,” Ortiz said. “This has definitely been my best year as a coach, obviously, the most impactful year I’ve had as a coach.

“When it comes to the gym, I just want them to compete. That’s been the secret sauce for us. They have no problem holding each other accountable and calling each other out. We’re not trying to squash that. It’s absolutely all right to want to get in there and beat people. We’re never going to apologize for that.”

Keeping it fun

Junior Kailey Keeble, the Sun Belt setter of the year, said that the players have appreciated Ortiz’s approach.

“He’s been really good about reminding us that volleyball is a kids’ game, and it should be fun to do it,” said Keeble, who averages 10.52 assists and 3.04 digs per set. “We are competing in the gym, but we should have fun with it, and that makes it better for us.”

The Jaguars have been having plenty of fun lately. They’re on a 13-match winning streak, and in three Sun Belt Tournament matches, they dropped only one set.

South Alabama coach Jesse Ortiz/Scott Donaldson photo

Ortiz said that being able to excel at “situational volleyball” has been the hallmark of his team. He used Keeble as an example: She isn’t simply setting the hot hand or making what would be the easiest play. She’s reading the defense and figuring out the best places to set up the attack.

“I think one of the biggest things for me is having a bunch of smart players, having a bunch of big brains in the gym,” Ortiz said. “Because when they can grasp the concepts, we can go further.”

Smart and tough

But the Jaguars are as much brawn as they are brains. That starts with junior outside hitter Hannah Maddux, a second-team all-conference selection who averages 2.9 kills per set and hits .283.

Ortiz said he thinks Maddux might be underappreciated.

“I’m not trying to sound brash, but Hannah Maddux is one of the best offensive weapons in the Sun Belt regardless of what team she was awarded,” he said. “Physically, if she’s not the best right side and one of the most elite pins in the conference, she’s among them.”

Senior middle Kennedy Wallace also has been a force at the net. Also a second-team All-Sun Belt player, she averages 1.03 blocks and 1.72 kills per set and hits .385. She also adds plenty of experience to the mix, having played four years at Northern Illinois before coming to South Alabama this season.

Then there is redshirt junior Maddie Soboleski, who has quite the volleyball pedigree: Her mother, Missy, has nearly 500 wins in her coaching career and just completed her 17th season at Division II Edinboro near Erie, Pennsylvania. Maddie began her college career at Pitt and played in 20 matches for the ACC champion Panthers as a redshirt freshman in 2019.

A second-team All-Sun Belt selection, Soboleski does a little bit of everything. She averages 2.88 kills and 2.19 digs per set and has 65 blocks and 33 service aces.

“Maddie is next level,” Ortiz said. “Who else has a skill set that starts as a middle in high school and club, moves to the setter position and then moves to a six-rotation left position and is such a huge points-earner?

“To watch her production thus far and know she’s just going to get better at it, it’s just a crazy, amazing thing, and I hope a scary thing for others.… I don’t think most people see how great that kid is.”

Keeble said there was plenty of excitement when the Jaguars won the conference tournament. The magnitude of what they accomplished, however, didn’t sink in until they saw their name pop up during the selection show on ESPNU.

Still, the Jaguars won’t be satisfied with simply showing up. They are eager to compete and see how they stack up against teams from bigger conferences.

Advancing in the NCAA Tournament? That would be new, too.

“I know our end goal for the season was probably to win the Sun Belt,” Keeble said. “But I don’t think we’re satisfied with that. I think we know we have the potential to do something big here and leave a lasting legacy that can be built on.

“I don’t think anyone is thinking we’re just happy to be here. I think our mindset is to go down there and win as many games as we can.”

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