Describing the Sacramento State volleyball team begins to sounds like art class pretty quickly: A harmony in elements both front and back, a sense of flow regardless of environment, and the ability to excite just by showing up.
But it’s a good thing the Hornets aren’t content just standing there being admired, as their strengths are far better understood in the heat of the action. Sitting at 19-7 overall and a 10-0 start in Big Sky Conference play, Sacramento State has prevailed in five-set nail-biters and 3-0 sweeps, moving up a couple notches to No. 23 in this week’s VolleyballMag.com Mid-Major Poll presented by the NIVC.
The Hornets, who hold a two-game lead over Portland State in the Big Sky South, play at Northern Arizona (9-12, 5-5) on Thursday night.
With totals of 20 and 26 victories in the past two seasons, it’s not unusual to see the Sacramento State program playing well this season. But the hot streak of 2017 feels like another level has been reached, with senior setter Kennedy Kurtz seeing every option and outside hitters Shannon Boyle and Mikaela Nocetti cashing in with regularity. Middle blockers Lana Brown and Brie Gathright are effective and efficient, and Sarah Davis is in control on the right side.
“It just seems like this team gets really competitive at really important times. I can’t really put a finger on it, but we’re a balanced team that does a lot of things pretty well and knows how to put pressure on opponents,” said Ruben Volta, who is in his 10th year as head coach of the Hornets and been able to start pretty much the same lineup throughout the season. “We seem to make the right play, whether it’s a great serve at a tough time, or an important dig in transition. We are very competitive in close sets.
“We’re so balanced, much more than two years ago. Both outside hitters are doing a great job, both middles are hitting for a high percentage, and as a sophomore Sara Davis has been doing a really good job for us on the right attacking and especially blocking … we serve, pass and defend well. It’s been a perfect recipe; there’s no one thing we are great at but we work hard and make teams play.”
Heading into the NAU match, the Hornets continue to impress with Kurtz putting the finishing touches on a terrific career. She averages 11.15 assists per set and was the conference’s setter of the year in 2016, a stat line that is far removed from her freshman year, when she and seven other newcomers to the team stumbled to an 8-23 record.
“That (losing season) certainly taught us some things. We just found ways to lose sets. We lost so many close ones, and I remember talking about it at the end of the season,” Volta said. “Like, we’d have four match points, not convert any and then lose in five.
“The (next year, a 26-7 record), we felt like we had a good team. We had an outside (Lauren Kissell) who had missed time and we knew was coming back, and then returning basically everybody, I felt we’d have a good season. A lot of things came together, but as a staff we thought we had a lot of talent on that team.”
It pays to be restless in excellence, and the Hornets are not likely to get cocky despite the cosmetic appeal of their record.
Expect Nocetti (360 kills) and Boyle (343 kills) to keep swinging hard; the team is also getting great back-row labor from libero Brigitte Murdock, who averages about 4.5 digs per set. Sacramento State’s recent history also shows a team that hasn’t had all the right touches in the Big Sky tournament, losing in the semifinals in 2015 and 2016, so there’s real appreciation for how difficult it is to advance.
“We’ve been competitive in those important times this year, probably because of the experience from the last couple of years and losing some close matches in postseason. When you’ve got a couple of points here or there, a couple of sets … that all carries forward,” Volta added. “The players who returned remember that and that feeling, and they don’t want to experience that again.
“This is a good group of players; in prior years we’ve lost to teams at the bottom of the standings and lost close ones to teams at the top. They know, with the travel in our conference and the places we go, there are no easy places to play, and they seem ready to play all the time.”