When the Oral Roberts volleyball team got off to something of a false start in 2017, coach Sheera Sirola knew the truth.
The Golden Eagles roster had real talent on the floor, but waiting in the wings were players who hadn’t recovered from injuries or who were still getting used to their first year on the scene. Sirola kept the squad looking ahead and encouraged about what was waiting down the line, and that tenacity has been rewarded in multiple ways.
It’s paid off the most in the Summit League standings, where Oral Roberts sits at 10-1 and in first place, clearly in position to claim a high seed in the league tournament even with Denver and South Dakota (both 8-2) nipping at its heels.
The Golden Eagles play at Denver on Friday and then come home for South Dakota on Sunday. ORU closes the regular season November 10 at Omaha.
“It could go either way, and honestly, this weekend is probably our true test. I think if we’d had our whole squad like we’ve had since the start of conference, our record would be better,” said Sirola, the 15th-year coach whose team started 0-5, which included losses to the Big Ten‘s Purdue and Nebraska.
“We definitely want to capitalize on this year. Once we started conference and saw how good we are, I told the girls we (had reason) to be excited.”
Freshman Morgan Blomquist has emerged as a useful force in the middle, and VCU transfer CeCe Madison gives the offense some flexibility with her swing (266 kills). But there’s no doubt the team’s heart, soul and muscle is anchored by senior Laura Milos, a native of Croatia (like Sirola) who has 438 kills (5.28 per set), was fourth in all of D-I in kills (631) and first in aces (81) last year, and finds a way to be effective even though defenses practically stack people on top each other to slow her down.
“Last weekend on senior night, when it was emotional, the first three sets she got were blocked, and on the other side they reacted like they’d won the national championship,” Sirola said. “Laura is driven and wants to be the best. She wants to be player of the year – the past two years, she’s been top three in the nation in (multiple categories), and she still didn’t get voted for. I was really disappointed in our conference coaches in how that ended up.
“We just keep encouraging her to do her job. Everyone else will see it. Maybe the coaches in the conference might not see you, but nationally you’ll be recognized. Each game we have a strategy for what we’ll do, where we will hit and tip, so just keep on going and play your game.”
Part of Milos’ growth into one of the NCAA’s most impressive players is tied to setter Lucija Bojanjac, who played with her on Croatian junior national teams since their early teens. Their shared instincts have fueled relentless success on offense, and Milos has also been in step with the other primary setter on the roster, junior Bria Bergman.
“When we had those two players who hadn’t been released by the doctors at the start of the season, so we ran a modified 5-1,” said Sirola, who played soccer at ORU. “Lucija is a little bit shorter, and teams went after her when she was in the front row. We were trying to figure out how to slow down those hitters.
“Then we went with a taller setter in the front row. When those other players got released, we had too many players … and the only way to get all our best players on the court all the time is going to a 6-2. It’s worked. We’ve lost just one match since.”
The Golden Eagles will be carefully balancing their enthusiasm and sense of accomplishment with the cold, hard facts popping up at the end of the season. First is this upcoming weekend with their stiffest competition, and then comes the Summit League tournament, on Denver’s home floor. For a program that hasn’t seen an NCAA bid since 2006, Sirola has a deep appreciation for how much has to go right to play deep in November.
“I see them get a little relaxed at practice sometimes, happy about being in first place, but I don’t think that way,” Sirola added. “The ball can roll either wa.
“You get overconfident and the opponent can bite you in the butt. We’ll keep our focus, and go from there.”