Virginia Tech volleyball got quite the news before heading out to Nashville, TN for the Lipscomb Invitation last weekend.
Last Thursday, Head Coach Chris Riley found out that middle blocker Ashley Battle suffered a season-ending injury, while setter Rhegan Mitchell would be out for an extended period of time due to injury as well. To make matters worse, Riley said that outside hitter Katie Kreuger is also out for the season.
Replacing three pivotal players in less than a day isn’t easy. Losing Battle, Mitchell and Kreuger made things quite difficult for the Hokies last weekend, as Virginia Tech dropped all three matches.
“I don’t know that we could be more injured than we are,” Riley said. “With that being said, you have to go to battle with who you have and we are in a situation where we need to figure out what that looks like.”
Riley said that losing Battle, as well as Mitchell, really hurts on and off the floor.
“Your most physical, athletic presence not on the floor changes every aspect of what you do,” Riley said of Battle. “It didn’t make her our best player, but it did make her our biggest weapon when she’s good. You take away that and it significantly changes the way you play the game.”
Lindsey Owens, a senior and a leader for Virginia Tech, compared losing Mitchell to the football team losing Michael Brewer at the start of the 2015 season.
“Not only does it put a lot of pressure on our other setters, because now they have to step up and perform exactly like (Mitchell) does, and they’re three different setters with three different skills,” Owens said. “I think it’s a lot of pressure for them, especially for Gaby (Senties) as a true-freshman. Mandy (Powers) just got here this year, so they’re really new to our program.”
Now, with just two more games before Virginia Tech begins their ACC schedule, Riley must find a way to reinvent his team for the rest of the season. He said that Tech must key in defensively, get aggressive with their serves and minimize mistakes when attacking.
“We’re going to have to play a longer, more tactical match than we have in the past,” Riley said. “It’s not going to be quite as rhythmic as it had been and so now, we kind of have to switch gears and go more towards a slightly different style.”
In order to replace Mitchell at setter, the Hokies are relying on Mandy Powers and Gaby Senties to hold down the fort. Powers registered 42 assists vs. Northwestern and Ole Miss, while Powers and Senties combined for 17 assists vs. Lipscomb.
“I think there was some nervousness in the beginning, as expected, but I think as we get through these practices and as the upperclassmen take a little more load off of them, that’s going to help our group and take a little pressure off of them,” Riley said. “I think they’re both going to be good, I think they’re both going to help us and for the near future as we go and play.”
Owens said that the structure of practice has changed in order to prepare the team for the rest of the season.
“We’re not necessarily hitting tons of balls in practice,” Owens said. “They have faith that we can execute and offense has never been our problem. Now we’re thinking, if we can out-dig these teams that maybe are a little bigger than us, or get them out of system so they aren’t on the net, they won’t be able to hit as well as they can.”
After a few practices, Riley feels confident that the veteran players can help bring the younger, less experienced players along quickly.
“I think we have a much better handle on it now and I think Lindsey, Amanda (McKinzie), Jaila (Tolbert), Stacey (Christy), Cara (Cunningham), they understand now, more so than they did Friday and Saturday. On Friday, we played two matches and they hadn’t practiced in a meaningful setting with those kids yet,” Riley said. “There was still a lot of learning to be done at that point.”
It would be easy for Virginia Tech to get down in the dumps about their current situation, but the coaching staff and team is focused on figuring things out and weathering the storm.
“We talk about the things you can control and the things you can’t control,” Riley said. “What we can control is, how diligent we are in practice and in what we’re trying to accomplish and the way we can now play the game.”
“We are looking to really stay strong as a unit, that core that’s on the court,” Owens said. “I think that’s been the biggest change, just change how we work with each other, trying to be more uplifting towards each other.”
Friday will be an important day for Virginia Tech volleyball. The Hokies will play Radford (8-2) and Ohio (3-7) as Tech hosts the Hokie Invitational. Tech’s match vs. Radford is at 3 p.m. and their match vs. Ohio is scheduled for 8 p.m.
“It’s important because we need to set the tone on how we’re going to play and see it against live competition,” Riley said. “It’s something where, both of these teams are good. Radford has had a great year and they’re a good team. Ohio is historically a very good team, best team in the (Mid-American Conference).”
Even if Virginia Tech can’t play the way they want to, both Riley and Owens know that this new play-style gives them the best chance to win.
“For us, we have to be clear on where we can win and how we can win,” Riley said. “In the past, we’ve been able to get through matches in a couple of different ways. I think right now, we’re going to have to get through matches in a very specific way.”
“Winning would be a huge confidence booster, especially going into ACC’s,” Owens said. “If we pull out a win, and it’s in five and it’s not pretty, I think that’s what we have to expect right now. I think we can’t expect perfection. It’s still a win.”