When the SEC volleyball coaches voted last summer on their preseason poll, they picked Ole Miss to finish 10th of the 13 teams in the league.
And why not?
The Rebels finished 14-18 in 2018, 4-14 in the league, and, really, there was no reason to expect an improvement that would, well, warrant a story like this.
Surprise, because unranked Ole Miss (14-3, 6-0) is not only the lone SEC team unbeaten in league play in a conference that includes three ranked teams — No. 13 Florida, No. 16 Kentucky and No. 25 Missouri — but riding a 14-match winning streak.
“It was so frustrating the last couple of years because we felt like we were doing all the right things but it wasn’t paying off,” senior outside hitter Emily Stroup admitted. “Our coaches told us to trust in the process.”
Ole Miss, with an NCAA RPI of 37, plays host to Texas A&M on Sunday with a chance to extend its ride to the longest win streak in school history.
“This has been awesome. I love it,” Stroup said. “We’ve been through some changes since my freshman year, but the four of us have stuck it out and been loyal to the program and we’re finally starting to see it pay off this year.”
“I’m really thankful for that,” sixth-year coach Steve McRoberts admitted.
The four include the three other seniors, Nayo Warnell, Nicole Purcell, and Leah Mulkey.
And while Stroup had her breakout season last year — she tied for third in the NCAA with 584 kills behind only Cincinnati’s Jordan Thompson and UC Santa Barbara’s Lindsey Ruddins — Warnell, the 6-foot-1 product of Dickinson, Texas, has been a huge surprise.
Warnell wasn’t bad as a freshman, finishing second on the team with 82 blocks, and then in 2017 led the team in hitting percentage (.342). Last year she continued to improve and hit. 400.
But this year she’s been better than ever and was last week’s SEC offensive player of the week when she had 17 kills in seven sets and hit .500. She’s hit better than .500 10 times this season and is third on the team in kills (123, 1.84/set) and is second in blocks with 66, seven solo.
“I think she just kind of found her groove this year. She’s doing well academically as well and I think everything for her has come together,” McRoberts said. “For her senior year, it’s kind of incredible the hitting percentage numbers she’s putting up.”
While much of the focus is understandably on Stroup, the key has been Ole Miss spreading the wealth. The other middle, 6-3 sophomore Aubrey Sultemeier, from Fredricksburg, Texas, leads with 69 blocks, 15 solo, and has 104 kills (1.58/set).
McRoberts, formerly at Lubbock Christian, Central Arkansas, and Tulsa, is 111-70 in his sixth season at Ole Miss. And it’s not like his teams have been terrible — Ole Miss won the 2017 National Invitational Volleyball Championship and Stroup was named MVP — but last year was a downer.
“We started that way last year, but could never recapture that magic,” McRoberts said, recalling a 2018 in which Ole Miss started 9-1 before things fell apart.
Back to Stroup in a minute, but the other outside, freshman Anna Bair, is another huge piece. The 6-2 product of St. Louis was the leader on Friday night when Ole Miss beat visiting Arkansas in four, finishing with 14 kills, an assist, three digs and two blocks, one solo. For the season, Bair has 217 kills (3.24/set) and 35 blocks, four solo. By the way, Avery Bugg, the sister of former Stanford All-American Maddie Bugg, often comes in for her to serve and play defense.
Setter Lauren Bars, a 6-2 junior from Nashville, is averaging 9.78 assists and is third behind Purcell (321 digs) and Stroup (184) with 176 digs. She has 14 aces and 41 blocks, three solo. And it should be noted that Purcell, who has paid her dues and improved has not only flourished as finally winning the job as starting libero, but the product of Leawood, Kansas, is leading the SEC in digs.
“We were afraid that was going to be a weak spot for us,” McRoberts said. “But she’s working her butt off.”
Back to Stroup, whose name is pronounced Str-ow-p. But it was a while before she ever told McRoberts it wasn’t pronounced Stroop.
He was quick to praise her serve receive — teams target her — and how she’s improved her blocking.
However you say it, consider her numbers: The 6-foot product of Fargo, North Dakota, has 275 kills this season (3.73/set), 13 aces, and has 41 blocks, three solo. What’s more, she will likely leave as the Ole Miss all-time kills leader, remarkable because Stroup played sparingly as a freshman.
And she’s pretty happy about not contending for the NCAA lead in total kills.
“It’s better for our team that that’s not happening. We’re less predictable with our middles stepping up and we have more production from other outsides. Our offense is more spread out and I think that’s why we’re more successful,” Stroup said.
“In the past I had a lot of kills, but this year it’s better and I’m happy with that change. Everyone has bought in to doing their job on the floor and we all believe we can win, which is new this year.”
That didn’t happen right away. Ole Miss went on a European trip last May that included going to Prague, Vienna, Slovenia, and Italy, which just right for a team with players from all over the country but none from Mississippi.
In August, the Rebels opened this season at home and got swept by Rice (which since has moved into the AVCA Poll), lost in four to Iowa State and then in five to UCF.
A trip to New Orleans helped as Ole Miss swept Houston Baptist and Missouri State and then beat Tulane in five to start this winning streak. The one that got everyone’s attention was on October 9 when Ole Miss won in four at then-No. 22 Missouri as Stroup had 18 kills, an ace, three blocks and seven digs.
“We’ve been playing well together and hopefully it keeps happening for us,” Stroup said.
“I know it’s coach-speak, but this team really has done a really good job of focusing on who the next opponent is,” McRoberts said. “Because let’s be honest. We’ve never been in this position.”
Indeed. Ole Miss has not been to the NCAA Tournament since 2010.
“I love where we’re at right now,” McRoberts said, but he knows the Ole Miss schedule is about to get a lot tougher with not only the A&M match, Sunday, but a trip to Georgia on Wednesday and then Kentucky visits on October 27.
And before you wrap up, you have ask how a kid from Fargo, North Dakota, got to Oxford, Mississippi.
“Our old assistant coach (Angela Mooney, now head coach at Abilene Christian), who was the head coach at South Dakota State, saw me at my state tournament as a setter,” Stroup said. “I wasn’t really interested in South Dakota State, so I never reached out, but then she moved to Ole Miss and kept in touch me. My parents told me I should go on a visit and I did.”
Indeed, she attended the Ole Miss camp that summer as a setter.
“And they switched me to a hitter during the camp,” Stroup said with a laugh, “and that’s how I got here.”
And if you happen to get there Sunday, they’re celebrating 90s day at Ole Miss. The first 250 fans get scrunchies.