USD volleyball head coach Leanne Williamson stands behind the west baseline of the court inside the Sanford Coyote Sports Center, arms crossed and eyes concentrated on her team exchanging attacks a few feet in front of her.
Since 2016, Williamson and her teams have posted a 42-18 (23-7 CONF) record, reaching the Summit League Tournament semifinals both seasons, but failing to go beyond.
Williamson returns this season with a group hungry for a conference title, armed with veteran talent and supported by young potential.
“We’re very new and very young,” Williamson said. “We have very old players and very young players, so it’s about meshing the two groups together and focusing on the process.”
Among the ‘very young players’– the seven freshmen reinforcing the Coyote squad– is redshirt Madison Jergens, who is filling the setter role after shadowing the now-graduated Brittany Jessen since the Spring of 2017.
“Brittany was always fearless and never doubted herself, which is something a setter needs to have,” Jergens said. “I think I’ve grown into that role as I’ve learned from her. I’m excited to finally play and see how the work that I’ve put in over the past years contributes to real games.”
Williamson said she’s been “pleasantly surprised” by Jergens and her capabilities.
“You can tell she put the work in over the summer,” Williamson said. “She’s stronger and able to make sets that she couldn’t at the end of the spring. She’s a lot more confident than I was expecting, so that’s a good thing.”
The Coyotes have four seniors mentoring the rest of the squad this year: middle blocker Taylor Wilson and outside hitters Hayley Dotseth, Kristina Susak, and Rachel Schmidt.
Dotseth, whose 359 kills last season led the Coyotes and ranked third in the Summit League, said developing young players is vital to victory.
“We have a pretty young team, so bringing their success at a lower level into the success us older players have had will be really important,” Dotseth said. “Our youth is spread out through all positions, so we’re doing breakdowns at every position. Different coaches are focusing on different skills.”
The Coyotes begin tournament play August 24th, and Dotseth said until then, the main focus in practice is defense.
“We pride ourselves on our defense,” Dotseth said. “Again, we have a lot of players who haven’t stepped foot on a collegiate court, so we’re making sure we flow through defense correctly.”
Junior defensive specialist Anne Rasmussen drove the Coyotes’ backcourt last season, whose 569 digs ranked second in the Summit League. In December, Coach Williamson called Rasmussen ‘one of the best liberos in the league’, but Rasmussen said she’s fixated on the season ahead of her.
“There’s a little pressure [from last season], but every year is a fresh start,” Rasmussen said. “I’m not focused on what happened last season. I’m focusing ahead: How can I help my team get better? How can I help our offense by digging multiple balls and giving them more opportunities? I’m focused on getting better day by day.”
Apart from the daily grind, Rasmussen said the team creates chemistry outside the walls of the SCSC.
“A lot of it stems from what we do off the court. We’re really good friends and hang out all the time, and it really does transfer to the court.” Rasmussen said. “We work every day by communicating and getting into a good flow.”
Friday, USD traveled to Ames, Iowa to test that flow against #21 Iowa State in an exhibition game.
“Playing Iowa State is a great thing for us to do early in the season,” Williamson said. “We want to get players opportunities, so we’ll find time to get them in the match and allow them to work through things to figure out what they can do against a high-level team.”
Though the Coyotes lost to the Cyclones 1-3, Williamson’s attention was not on the score.
“We’re expecting to take care of our side of the floor,” Williamson said. “We’re not worrying about what Iowa State’s doing on the other side; we want to make sure we’re playing clean volleyball and making changes along the way.”
The Coyotes compete in their red/white scrimmage Saturday evening before traveling to Milwaukee Friday to play Northwestern and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the first day of the Panther Invitational.
“I’m looking forward to seeing how they compete, and how they show their confidence on the floor,” Williamson said.