After a 29-9 finish in 2018, a season capped off with a trip to the NIVC title match, Tulane has continued its upward trend this year.
The Green Wave is 10-3 heading into its American Athletic Conference opener Friday against Memphis.
In 2018, Tulane beat two power-five teams, Rutgers and Clemson. This season it has done the same, beating Ohio State and, most recently, came back from a set down last Saturday to win at LSU in four.
“The biggest thing is we’ve really come together as a team,” fourth-year coach Jim Barnes said after the LSU match. “We haven’t been hitting on all cylinders all preseason. We’ve been dealing with a few nicked up players, players like (Makala) Heidelberg and (Erika) Hansel, and they probably had their best matches and are probably the most healthy they’ve been. We’re a complete team when those guys are playing well and feeling good.”
Indeed, Hansel, a senior right side from Genoa, Illinois, led a balanced attack with 11 kills and had two blocks and two digs. Heidelberg, a sophomore outside from Winter Garden, Florida, had eight kills, two assists, two aces, four blocks and 18 digs. Heidelberg is just 5-foot-7, but has a 32-inch vertical and all sorts of shots.
It was that kind of day for Tulane, which ended up hitting .268 after coming out of the first set below .100.
Kayla Dinkins, a sophomore middle from Pittsburgh, had nine kills, hit .316, and had seven blocks, one solo. Lauryn Green, a freshman middle from Forney, Texas, also had eight kills but had no errors in 17 swings and hit .471 and had four blocks, one solo. And Yvette Burcescu, a sophomore right side from Cortlandt Manor, N.Y., also had eight kills, and two blocks and four digs.
Note that there were two right sides, because Tulane runs a 6-2 with two Louisiana setters, junior Jenna Ibieta, who is from New Orleans, and Amanda Giardina, who is from Slidell. Against LSU they combined for four kills in five errorless attacks, 40 assists and 16 digs.
Tulane was 10-22, 4-16 in conference play the year before Barnes took over. In 2016, the Green Wave went 18-14, 10-10. In 2017 Tulane took a step back, finishing 14-19, 3-17, but Ibieta recognized that the program was in transition when she came in.
“I felt like that this was the time there would be a turnaround,” said Ibieta, whose mother, Julie, is a multiple-championship-winning prep coach in New Orleans and played on two final-four teams for LSU in the early 1990s. “I think with football winning, our season last year, everything’s just been coming together.
“It’s been really cool to be part of the turnaround and building on this to see where this program can go.”
Last year’s finish including going 13-5 in the tough AAC. And through it all has been libero Kaylie McHugh, a senior from Davie, Florida. It came down to LSU, FIU, and Tulane for her, because both schools could offer the opportunities to play indoors and beach.
“I picked Tulane because it felt right and I love the atmosphere,” McHugh said. “I love the coaches and what they believed it, and it got me.”
Barnes, who coached at Lamar, Wyoming and Baylor before taking a year off in 2015, knows it’s been a building process for the Green Wave.
“The process has been really enjoyable,” Barnes said. “The players who came to Tulane have bought in right away and we were able to make a difference right away. Last year was one of my favorite years in 31 years, putting together a season like we did and coming that close to winning an NIVC title.
“This year there are a lot of expectations, so it’s different. We have the ability to be the best team in our league — we really believe that — but we need more games like this (against LSU) where we’re really locked in.”
The Green Wave was picked to finish third in the AAC preseason coaches poll behind perennial power UCF and Cincinnati.
Tulane took a tough loss at Western Kentucky, but bounced back by beating Southern Miss and then LSU.
“We’re coming up strong,” McHugh said. “We’re extra confident now and I think it’s going to help us build for the future.”