Better Than Ever: Volleyball coach Mark Hardaway believes he has a ‘special group’

Aly Ryan competes in a volleyball game last season. YSU’s volleyball team is off to an impressive 9-3 record. Photo by Dustin Livesay/The Jambar.

To his delight, Penguins’ volleyball coach Mark Hardaway noticed yet another progression when his team came off the floor during timeouts on Friday against the University of Virginia at the Northwestern Wildcat Classic.

“They were asking us [coaches] if they can make defensive adjustments based on what they saw,” Hardaway said. “That’s a good sign.”

After adopting a volleyball program in 2012 that went 7-51 in the previous two seasons combined, you have to believe the third-year coach that led Youngstown State University to a winning record in each of his first two campaigns.

“It means that they’re really focused into what’s going on,” Hardaway further explained about what he saw against the Cavaliers. “They’re not waiting for us to make adjustments. It’s a lot of fun to see teams mature like that.”

In turn, it’s been a lot of fun for the Penguins through the early season, as they’re off to a 9-3 record. It also was a lot of fun for YSU as it adjusted, persevered and upset Virginia in five sets for the school’s first win over an Atlantic Coast Conference team since 2002.

And as for what the future holds for this group of girls, Hardaway — considering what he’s seen so far — believes it holds, well, a lot of fun.

“They’ve done stuff that makes me think they can be one of those special groups that can become overachievers,” he said.

The Core 

Last spring, just eight girls remained.

Having lost eight seniors from a squad that won a school-record 16 matches in 2013, Hardaway said the returners realized that people might expect them to take a step back in 2014.

So instead, they did the opposite.

“We all stepped up, starting from the spring,” Aly Ryan, a junior middle blocker, said. “All summer we just prepared and worked hard. We knew what we were getting into.”

They definitely did, as Hardaway showed them their challenging non-conference schedule — consisting of matchups with Indiana State, Northwestern, Virginia, Kent State, Michigan and Kansas State — right away.

“They just said ‘Hey it’s going to be a challenge,’” Hardaway said. “But one reason we did the challenge was because of that core group.”

The core group includes seniors Shannon Watson and Lexi Egler and juniors Ryan, Jessie Gerig, Nikki Thompson and Lauren Thompson — all of whom saw significant playing time last season.

“They really focus in the classroom and on the court,” Hardaway said. “The leadership is solid with Aly and Jesse and Lexi and Shannon. I just can’t speak of how much they worked for this.”

So far this season, the Penguins swept the Belmont Invitational, 3-0, won three of four at the Duquesne/Robert Morris Invitational and also recently took two of three matches at the Wildcat Invitational.

“Everyone’s just meshing really well on the court — you can see as you watch us,” Watson said. “We play as a team and no one’s caring about their individual success.”

That goes for the core and the newcomers.

Welcomed Additions

Freshman outside hitter Sam Brown entered YSU, naturally, with a bit of uncertainty.

“Coming in and being new, it’s hard to know for sure if you’re going to get along right away and fit in with the older girls,” she said. “But we’ve all just clicked.”

Brown is one of three newcomers that’s stepped in and played right away. She’s been joined on the court by fellow freshman Lauren Blanco, as well as sophomore-transfer Val Jeffery.

“Sam’s done a really nice job — she’s able to hit shots that I can’t hit and she’s really smart,” Watson said. “Lauren’s proven huge for us in crunch time and then Val has really taken to the setting role.”

At the same time, Watson — along with fellow senior Egler and captains Ryan and Gerig — have taken to the leadership role.

“Lexi plays the same position as I do, so she’s helped me out a lot on and off the court,” Brown said. “Same thing with Shannon.  If I make a mistake, they tell me to shake it off.”

Hardaway knows that the guidance from the leaders has been crucial.

“We’ve really gotten ahold of the freshman and kind of showed them that hey, this is YSU volleyball and this is the work ethic that’s expected,” Watson said. “We just try to lead them every day.”

Room for Improvement?

Hardaway wasn’t the only one to notice the Penguins progression that became evident in their win against the Cavaliers.

Ryan did, too.

“Virginia would get some amazing kills, but we would just shake it off like it was nothing, adjust and bounce back really quick,” she said. “We’re very mentally tough this year.”

And as Hardaway points out, they’re also a level-headed group.

“[Dealing with success] won’t be a problem for this team,” he said. “We talked about that no matter who you’re playing, you have to go in focused and not give them the opportunity to control the match, because you can get beat by anybody — like Virginia saw against us.

“Plus they just keep looking at the schedule.”

In what may possibly be their toughest preseason tournament so far, the Penguins will play in the Michigan Invitational this weekend. Conference play then begins on Sept. 26.

Still, they’re not intimidated by what lies ahead. Actually, the Penguins are quite excited to continue to embark on what may prove to be yet another record-breaking season — and for more than one reason.

“I don’t think we’ve played to our best yet,” Brown said. “Which is really exciting because we have that much more to grow into.”

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