Building a Program



Claire Ferry

Courtesy of Villanova University

Dayton’s leading outside hitter closed the 2015 Wildcats’ chapter last December with a decisive final kill in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. But with that swing, she simultaneously opened the story of the 2016 team.

Oddly enough, that Dayton outside hitter—Jill Loirs—now wears a navy “V” printed on her polo as she serves as the Wildcats’ assistant coach this season.

Some similarities tie last year’s team with the new faces of this year, but the differences are plenty. The long-term goals, however, are left unchanged.

“I think it’s kind of simple—we want to try to do that again,” head coach Josh Steinbach said.

After a second-place finish in the Big East, an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and the most successful season in nearly two decades, besting those 2015 achievements will be no easy task. To begin, though, Steinbach hopes to simply repeat that success.

“We’ve talked a lot about being recognized not just for one good team, but trying to be recognized as a good program,” Steinbach explained. “To do that, you have to put together multiple years of those kinds of accomplishments.”

This year’s program looks to make an impact again, but it will do so with the exact opposite formula as the 2015 team. A squad once marked by seven seniors and a few newcomers is now characterized by overwhelming youth in nearly all aspects. Freshmen and returners alike try to fill the void of the graduated veterans.

One of the most evident holes in the Wildcats’ lineup concerns the quarterback of the offense—the setter. Ranked third in all-time assists, alum Emma Pettit was largely responsible for the 2015 team’s impressive hitting percentage. Freshman Emma Decker, who garnered Big East Freshman of the Week in late August, looks to fill her shoes.

“She’s finding her way and learning on the fly,” Steinbach said of Decker. “She’s doing a really good job, and I think she’s going to be outstanding as her career goes on.”

The other key piece to any team deals with the heart, the core. For last year’s ‘Cats, that was Gabby Pethokoukis and her inspiring battle against cancer, quiet leadership and commanding presence in the middle. Filling her place on the court is difficult, but recreating the perfect storm that was Gabby is nearly impossible.

“Replacing Gabby is probably the hardest,” Steinbach admits of the Second Team All-Big East selection and the Most Courageous Award winner.

Senior Michaela Berendt and freshman Allie Olsonoski vie for the starting spot in the middle, while sophomore returner Amanda Pederson-Henry shoulders more responsibility.

But a good program, as Steinbach mentioned, is only characterized by a string of successful teams. The fine print doesn’t dictate they all have to be cut from the same mold. Upperclassmen leadership from returners Allie Loitz, Claire Crutchfield and Allison Fitzgerald will prove pivotal this season.

“Every team has its own personality,” Steinbach said. “This year we’ve got some youth, and that’s one of those things we’re trying to overcome.”

The first half of the 2016 schedule featured competition against No. 22 Western Kentucky and No. 5 Washington. 

“I think the non-conference is a big time to learn and figure some things out about ourselves,” Steinbach said. “There were moments we thought played really well, and there were some moments against some teams we’d like to have back.”

At the end of non-conference play, though, ‘Nova sits only one loss behind where it was a year ago. With such young, developing talent, that bodes well for the remainder of the season.

Last weekend’s Big 5 Challenge, a tournament to crown the champion of Philadelphia, saw the ‘Cats falter slightly against Temple. 

Two points determined the last two sets, just as they decided in favor of Villanova in 2015. The team rebounded against the University of Pennsylvania and LaSalle the next day, and Loitz received a Big East Weekly Honor Roll nod for her performances.

When it comes to the Big East, however, all non-conference slip-ups are quickly forgotten as teams face familiar rivals.

“One thing about our league is that if we don’t take someone seriously, we’re going to get beat,” Steinbach commented. “At the end of the day, we have to worry about the matches in front of us.”

Despite Steinbach’s caution, the Wildcats’ first Big East debut on Tuesday went exactly according to plan. The team powered past Seton Hall in three decisive sets as Pederson-Henry delivered a team-high 15 kills. Crutchfield and Loitz followed closely behind with 13 and 12 kills, respectively, while Decker dished out an impressive 49 assists.

The ‘Cats will return to action in Jake Nevin on Saturday against Georgetown as they continue Big East play. With each passing game, Steinbach hopes the newcomers and returners will continue to mesh. 

A good program makes a statement with whatever names are on the roster, and that’s exactly what this year’s team looks to do. As these young newcomers develop over the course of the season, they’ll have a shot to repeat Big East and NCAA Tournament success. More importantly, they’ll have a shot to further that success for the next four years.

“We want to be watching on the Sunday after Thanksgiving on selection day with interest,” Steinbach explained. “That’s something we’re going to talk about every single year, not just last year or this year.”