When someone else is taking up all the oxygen, you’ve got to find a way to carve some open space to survive.
On the surface, the Pepperdine women’s volleyball program is in a tough spot in the West Coast Conference, putting in the hours and fending off the various nicks and ankle turns that come with the job, only to see BYU and San Diego reel in the momentum of multiple NCAA berths.
For that matter, undefeated BYU is ranked No. 1 overall in both the AVCA and VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major polls, with San Diego two games back in the WCC.
But Pepperdine (No. 53 in the latest NCAA RPI ranking) has truly turned a corner in 2018, sitting at 10-3 in the league (16-7 overall) and on course to far outshine recent WCC finishes. The Waves, who swept Saint Mary’s on Thursday, play at Pacific at noon Pacific Saturday.
Whether the NCAA comes calling with a postseason bid remains up in the air, but the Wave looks and sounds like a unit that seems inspired by the challenge.
“There’s been a focus on our base being really solid, and to build something that can be lasting over time. It starts with the players we’ve been investing in; it’s not about short-term gain,” said Scott Wong, whose team has already sprinted past their previous best of eight WCC wins in his four years as head coach. “The players we are recruiting will add value, and they share the vision we are laying out. In terms of this year, it’s been our ability to control the ball and point score — our ball control is the best it’s ever been, and the ability to serve-receive and run an efficient offense through our setter has been awesome.
“The way we prepare and practice … that’s where it starts. There are good conference opponents, and BYU and San Diego have been toward the top. We love playing against great teams and are fortunate to be in a conference with great teams. We’ll keep playing them. We took down San Diego a couple years ago.”
The regular season ends with a home match versus San Diego, so there are more highlights to chase. Pepperdine has dropped just four sets in its nine league wins and is employing an artfully built roster that leans on home-grown California talent and some wisely identified outsiders like sophomore middle Alli O’Harra (Boise, Idaho) and juniors Hannah Frohling (Edmond, Oklahoma) and Tarah Wylie (Indianapolis). Wylie was the WCC freshman of the year two years ago, and Frohling has simply blossomed in her time, earning a spot on the preseason all-WCC team.
“Last year was awesome because I got to have a really big role on the team; this spring, my mentality was to get better at everything, be more efficient at attacking and be a better blocker and more solid passer. Coming in this year, we had a lot of great players on the team, and my mentality changed a little bit,” said Frohling, who leads the team in kills (248, 3.35/set) and is hitting a robust .288.
“I don’t have to be on the court for every ball, but I can help my team every single point. Maybe that’s me calling in or out when I’m on the bench, or supporting people off the court, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s been exciting, to take every chance to make my team better.
“Obviously, I always want to put the ball away and help out my team that way, but this season has opened up for me a lot of off-the-court leadership, which has been very special to me.”
At the core of operations is senior setter Blossom Sato, a Santa Monica native who played two years at Mississippi State before coming back home. Sato, whose mother Liane played on two USA Olympic volleyball teams, has 856 assists (11.12 per set) and has successfully rebounded from injury issues in 2017. Another California native who transferred home is sophomore Shannon Scully (231 kills, 3.04/set), who played a year at Utah.
The team also gets a push from the freshman class, including Rachel Ahrens, who has 207 kills, 3.29/set. She had 12 kills and 13 digs against Saint Mary’s.
“Senior-heavy teams usually have a lot of success, so when you have a team that’s more balanced in the classes, it’s a good feeling for a coach knowing we don’t feel like we’ve arrived as a team and program,” Wong said. “We are excited about the future. Hannah has providing a big impact; it’s not a hit or pass or serve, but the mindful approach of creating change and creating a culture that has been instrumental to our approach. As a player, from passing and defense and hitting, there’s a difference, and her efficiency is way up.
“For Blossom, it’s neat to see her have this kind of season; as a junior she dealt with injuries that made it tough to be consistent. She’s playing steady volleyball, and we are asking a lot having her run a fast-tempo offense where she has to be precise.”
The moments of incremental progress are keeping Pepperdine excited and focused. Sure, a win over BYU would be transformational, but taking the Cougars to a 26-24 set earlier this year meant something. With a roster that’s in no way senior-heavy, the Wave refuse to be swamped by doubt.
“BYU, just playing them, we realize how much better we can be as a team. When you play the No. 1 team in the country, you expect they won’t make a lot of mistakes, and they don’t,” Frohling added.
“They are a lot of fun to play, and what we always learn when we play BYU is that we need to train like we can beat that kind of team. Our goal is to win every game the rest of the way. We still have to play everyone except BYU, and we know we can play with them all. We get a lot of those matches at home, which is an advantage for us. Winning them all is something we are definitely capable of doing.”