San Diego is on a 12-match winning streak in the West Coast Conference and is tied with BYU atop the league.
This was supposed to be a transition year for USD. Gone were were libero Hunter Jennings and Lisa Kramer and Lauren Schad, 41 percent of last year’s offense from a team that finished 24-6 and lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
But coach Jennifer Petrie, in her 16th year, not only has USD hoping to win the WCC, but in a good position when the NCAA Tournament bracket is announced next Sunday.
VBM: It’s been a great year so far. What do you think of your season?
Petrie: It feels like it’s gone so quickly this year. The team has been specially focused. We had a rough end to our season last year, we had a middle with a concussion late in the season, an early end of the season loss, so this year’s team is really focused and competitive. Every match we’ve played, they’ve been pretty intense. They’ve been a joy to coach, and I think the girls have had a really good time. It’s been a fun season.
VBM: You graduated much of your 2016 offense in Lisa Kramer and Lauren Schad. Are you surprised by your team’s offensive production?
Petrie: It’s been a nice surprise this year to see some people come out of the shadows and take their moment in the limelight. We’ve had a lot of upperclassmen, and even some younger kids, step up and carry us at different points in the match, but I think a lot of it falls on the shoulders of (setter) Kristen Gengenbacher and her ability to create situations that put our hitters in a successful position.
VBM: USD’s typical system involves shorter setters in a 6-2 offense. How has Gengenbacher prospered in the 5-1?
Petrie: Kristen played with the collegiate national team this summer and that was a really good opportunity for her to travel and see her potential and gain some maturity on the court. All of our seniors are ultra-focused on the court, their goals, and wanting to achieve their potential.
Having her on the court full time has given her a leadership position and given our team a lot more consistency.
VBM: Opposite Jayden Kennedy is currently leading the team with 3.86 kills per set. Thoughts about her?
Petrie: Jayden has a real tenacity about her right now. She’s determined, she has much more confidence, and because of her success this season, she’s in a place where she feels confident in what she’s doing offensively and can be more aggressive because of that.
She’s more willing to take some risks, she’s opened up a lot of shots this year, hitting a lot more line and sharp cross, where she was pretty much a seam hitter in previous years. It’s great to see her accept that role and step into those shoes.
VBM: This year you have generated a lot of production out of middles Kaity Edwards and Addie Picha. That’s obviously a good thing.
Petrie: It’s been really nice to be able to rely on our middles for some transition kills. Addie’s become an ultra-aggressive blocker, and the two of them are very offensive-minded, which helps tremendously, which frees up our outsides, not having to always rely upon a pin hitter.
VBM: Freshman Roxie Wiblin recently hit .556 against Gonzaga. Tell us about her progression.
Petrie: She’s a freshman, so she’s going to have some growing pains, but she was here in the spring and that’s helped her out a lot. She’s comfortable with the system, her teammates and being able to make her contribution.
We don’t have any bystanders. They’re all key players and they all have to play their roles in order for us to be successful, and she has certainly performed hers to the best of her ability.
VBM: Senior Lizzy Tardieu finally gets a start at libero. How is she taking advantage of the opportunity?
Lizzy was a great addition for us this year in terms of being able to take on the libero spot. Hunter had that wrapped up for the last three years. Lizzy bided her time and although she was new to the position, she had already gained a lot of experience on the court, and in big matches in previous seasons. She’s been tremendous and an important part of our defense. She fell right into the position and didn’t skip a beat.
VBM: How has senior outside Merve Tanyel’s role changed this year?
Petrie: She’s kind of a catch-all for us her entire career. She’s got a great arm, she can go on the outside if we need to, she’s got a real deep and aggressive serve, but we’ve really been using her a lot for her back row attack and her passing, especially once we switched into the 5-1.
VBM: What is the culture of this year’s team like?
Petrie: This team really likes to have fun. They’re a little goofy at times and a little light-hearted, but they’re so tight-knit that they can get on each other, push each other, to better the practice and better the drill and I think that helps us to get to a higher level once we get into the match situation.
VBM: What does long-time assistant Brent Hilliard mean to this program?
Petrie: He’s certainly made himself irreplaceable in our program and does a tremendous job in training, breaking down video and scouting, developing athletes, recruiting, across the board. It’s been a pleasure to have someone that can give that much to your program in so many areas.
VBM: Last year you were surprised by a dangerous Baylor team. You’re currently 23 in the latest RPI, so there’s a good chance that you’ll face another dangerous opponent early. How do you prepare for December?
Petrie: It’s tough. These girls understand that no matter where we’re at, or what our fate looks like, we’re going to be facing somebody that’s going to be a challenge right off the bat. We know that regionally, we’re in a tough place and at the end of the day, some of it is the luck of the draw, but you have to beat a lot of good teams in order to win a national championship. It just starts from the beginning.
VBM: You beat BYU in Provo, something that’s very difficult to do. What does that tell you about the makeup of this team?
Petrie: It tells me that it doesn’t matter what the jersey says, where you’re at, who’s on the other side of the net, they’ve come to play. They have confidence in themselves that has surpassed many other really talented teams. You have to believe. And they do, which is great. We’ve been in a lot of really tight situations this season. We were down in Portland 23-18 (and came back to win the set 25-23). You really just don’t know with this team. They don’t give up.
VBM: You compete in the WCC, not a power-five conference, and a conference that typically doesn’t get a lot of NCAA committee love. What is your opinion of the current system and its emphasis on RPI?
Petrie: In the past, we’ve had as many as five or six teams in the tournament, but recently, we haven’t. We have to have wins outside of our conference across the board. Some years we’ve done a good job of that in the conference as a whole and other years we’ve gone in without a strong RPI as a whole, so it all comes down to your preseason wins.
VBM: Do you have an opinion of the current system and RPI?
Petrie: (laughs) No. Not a public opinion. I really don’t put too much stock into any of that. Our philosophy, scheduling-wise, is to play the toughest schedule that we can in our preseason. Because a), we enjoy it, we enjoy the competition, and b), it prepares you to win a conference championship and see who you’re going to face in the NCAA tournament. Where that puts you in the RPI, where you are in the AVCA poll, to me, it’s more, what are you gaining in the matchup.
VBM: How are you using these late-season matches to prepare for the NCAA tournament?
Petrie: Our goal is to continue to get better. We get to play at home, which is nice, that should start us off with some confidence right there, but I would like us to play clean volleyball, and to come out aggressive. At the end of the year, it’s not just about the last few matches, it’s about the momentum you have going into the tournament.
VBM: Last question: if you were the volleyball Czar for a day and could make three changes to the game, what would they be?
Petrie: I would like to see five years of eligibility. By the time the seniors have hit their fourth year, they’ve stepped into playing the game really well, and they’re confident, and you’re like, “Man, if I had her just one more year, she’d really be good.”
You get them right where you want them and then they graduate. It would be nice to keep those kids around another year.
I do feel that we have a really long season. It extends all the way into the end of December, for example, soccer is a much shorter season than ours. It’s a lot on these kids. It would help these kids to shorten up the season a little so it’s not as impactful on their fall semester.
The two-week preseason is pretty short when you’re preparing for those first matches. The spring sports get to train an early season before they play their first competitions. Although I really do like the balance in my life (laughs), I’d like to at least have the flexibility to have additional training blocks. That would be nice.