Improving West Virginia: “We’re definitely going in the right direction”

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A couple of years ago, West Virginia women’s coach Reed Sunahara was scouting a tournament when he was approached by a player’s father. Red flags immediately went up. Per NCAA rule, Sunahara was not permitted to talk to family members of players at the event.

He explained as much to the parent.

“He says, ‘No, no no. I just want to tell you a quick story,’ ” Sunahara recalled.

He paused and listened.

The man said he and his daughter were looking for a volleyball club in the Atlanta area, and, at one particular club, he saw one of Sunahara’s players working out.

“I said, ‘How do you know it was one of my players?’ ” Sunahara said. “He said, ‘Well, she was wearing a West Virginia shirt.’ ”

Sunahara pretended to double down on his skepticism, when, in fact, he knew exactly who the man was talking about. So not long after the encounter, he called Briana Lynch.

“I called Bri, and I said, ‘Hey, were you working out at A5?’ ” he asked. “She goes, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘By yourself?’ And she said, ‘Yeah.’ ”

To that point in her college volleyball career, Sunahara said, Lynch hadn’t been 100% bought in. Hearing she was working out on her own was a good sign, and her commitment was emblematic of where the WVU program as a whole seemed to be headed.

The process might have taken a little longer than Sunahara would have liked. But last season, his sixth in Morgantown, the Mountaineers finished 8-8 in the Big 12.

Finishing .500 might not sound like something to celebrate, but considering that the Mountaineers had won only 14 Big 12 matches over Sunahara’s previous five seasons, the eight wins represented a quantum leap forward.

The watershed season included back-to-back wins over Kansas in Lawrence when the Jayhawks were ranked No. 10 in the AVCA poll. That momentum carried over into the nonconference portion of the 2021 season.

The Mountaineers are 10-1 and will open Big 12 play at home this weekend against Oklahoma. One of the victories was a sweep of a solid Michigan team.

With last season’s Big 12 mark and this season’s promising start, the Mountaineers are hoping they are on the brink of the next breakthrough: a berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“We’re definitely going in the right direction,” Sunahara said. “That’s the way I feel, and I think the players feel that, too. It’s never easy to build a program or rebuild a program, but I like where we are right now.

“I’m not satisfied, but I like where we are. I think last year was the foundation of what we’re trying to do.”

Briana Lynch

One factor WVU has working in its favor as it pursues a tournament berth is a veteran team. Ten of the Mountaineers range from juniors to fifth-year seniors.

Lynch is one. A fifth-year senior middle, she is coming off a season in which she earned first-team All-Big 12 honors. She averaged personal-bests of 2.59 kills per set and 1.06 blocks per set.

Through the first 11 matches this season, she leads the Big 12 with a .450 hitting percentage. She also averages 3.53 kills per set and 1.39 blocks per set.

“She’s incredible,” Sunahara said. “She’s had a great career up to this point, and I told her before last season, ‘You haven’t even scratched the surface and reached your potential yet.’ ”

Senior outside hitter Kristin Lux is third on the team with 96 kills (2.67 per set), and fellow senior Natali Petrova, from Bulgaria, is right behind with 95 kills (2.71) and is third on the team with 16 aces.

WVU setter Lacey Zerwas

Senior setter Lacey Zerwas, a second-team all-conference choice in 2020-21, is averaging 10.47 assists per set (second in the Big 12). She said she already can see areas where the Mountaineers have improved over last season.

“I think something huge is serving. We have been able to keep a lot of teams out of system and put a lot of pressure on them from that standpoint,” she said. “Also, defensively, I think we’ve gotten a lot better. We’re digging a lot of balls.

“We’ve known for a long time that our block needs to get better, and we have spent a lot of time on that in practice. So not only are we able to block more balls but set a block that’s easier to dig around.”

On defense, fifth-year Alexa Hasting is third in the conference at 4.25 digs per set, and true freshman Madison Page joins Lynch among the Big 12’s top 10 in blocks per set (1.22).

“I think she’s doing an exceptionally good job,” Lynch of Page, a fellow Georgia native. “Especially for her first time playing at the collegiate level. She’s doing an amazing job asking me questions, asking the coaches questions about what she needs to do to get better on the court.

“I think her determination to get better is really going to help her in the long run.”

Page is among a handful of newcomers and younger players who have helped to complement WVU’s veteran group. Redshirt senior outside hitter Adrian Ell, a transfer from Florida State, has produced five matches with double-digit kills, including a season-best 16 in a win over George Washington.

What makes Ell’s contribution as a hitter more impressive is that she spent the majority of her time at FSU as a setter. She also has made the Mountaineers more effective from the service line, ranking second on the team with 17 aces.

That number puts her just behind sophomore Skye Stokes, who has 19 aces. The native of Chester, W.Va., has been a revelation in her second season, Zerwas said.

“I think Skye Stokes has been huge, especially from the service line,” Zerwas said. “She top-spins and has gotten way more consistent with it. There’s a lot of power and a lot of pace, and I think she’s done a lot of good things back there.

“And defensively she’s super calm and just makes great moves and can take a lot of balls in serve-receive, too. It’s really been cool to see just in one year how her confidence has gone through the roof.”

As much optimism as there is that the program is finally ready to go to the next level, there also is a touch of reality. The Mountaineers’ lone loss is to No. 20 Penn State, easily their most formidable opponent to this point.

The volleyball juggernaut stormed into Morgantown last Friday and swept the Mountaineers off their home floor — a big letdown for the team and the partisan crowd of nearly 2,000 at WVU Coliseum.

That gave West Virginia a taste of what awaits in the Big 12, home to the nation’s current No. 1 (Texas) and No. 10 (Baylor) teams.

“It was a good test for where we were and where we are and what we need to work on,” Sunahara said. “They (Penn State) exposed our weaknesses and what we need to get better at.

“We can’t make that many mistakes. I thought our hitting errors were what killed us. We shot ourselves in the foot by making 28 hitting errors. You can’t do that against a very good team. If we can fix that, at least we’re not giving our opponents free points.”

Added Zerwas: “We didn’t play at the level we knew we could play at, and we still were hanging with them in the first and third sets (25-22, 25-20). I think it’s huge for us to know it’s possible to play at that level, but we need to make sure we do it consistently.

“And when we play good teams, we can’t be making a lot of errors. I think we saw we have more control over a match than we realize from an unforced error standpoint.”

Lynch noted the Mountaineers must guard against letting a little success go to their heads. Although she is happy with how far the program has come, she recognizes that they haven’t reached a point where they can take any match for granted.

Having such a mature, veteran group, she said, should be an appropriate safeguard.

“Not every game or every play is going to be perfect. Not every pass is perfect. Not every set or kill is perfect,” she said. “What’s important from here on out is sticking together.

“I feel like being a mature group makes that easier because we’ve all been through different kinds of experiences throughout the years.”

“From here on out” begins Friday. Opening at home will be a good way for the Mountaineers to ease into their Big 12 schedule, but it picks up quickly after that.

The next weekend, WVU travels to Texas to face the No. 1 Longhorns. Sunahara said it will be important for the Mountaineers to not only steal a match from one or two of the upper echelon teams but also to win away from Morgantown.

Those things, he hopes, will bolster WVU’s NCAA resume.

“Good teams win on the road, and we have to start winning on the road more,” he said. “And we also have to win the games we can at home. I feel we can possibly get four and — I’m hoping — five teams from our conference (into the NCAA) because our RPIs are good right now.

“If we can maintain that, then we can get those teams into the NCAA Tournament, and that would be a big step for West Virginia.”

That this kind of talk even takes place around the program is a major breakthrough. Just a couple of years ago, an NCAA Tournament bid seemed like only a pipe dream.

But after last season’s fourth-place finish in the Big 12, that proverbial brass ring seems closer than ever. For the outgoing seniors, this is the legacy they want to leave for the players who come after them.

They want WVU volleyball to be on the map.

“Something that has been cool about this program is I don’t think we’ve ever been intimidated,” Zerwas said. “We just want to get to that level, too. I think it’s a super-exciting feeling to have collectively. We want to get better every day.

“I remember my freshman year, volleyball wasn’t big on campus. No one really posted about it (on social media). No one talked about it. Now, you wear the gear and people know what’s happening. And, honestly, we’ve created it with our play.”

Lynch said: “I feel like this team as a whole, we’re definitely capable of getting on the level of all the teams, including Texas and Baylor. I have seen this program grow, and I am really happy that, along with the other seniors, I have contributed to the growth of this program.

“I am looking forward to seeing how far it can go once I hang up the jersey for the last time.”

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