PITTSBURG — It’s a new year and a new mindset for the Pittsburg State volleyball team, which held its first team practice on Monday inside John Lance Arena.
After a disappointing season in 2016 with six wins, the Gorillas are taking what they’ve been working on during the offseason and bringing it all together under the guidance of second-year head coach Jen Gomez.
“I want them to get to know each other and start to feel comfortable in the first week of practice,” Gomez said. “For the newcomers, I want them to understand our system and the level of expectations. The returning players will hopefully step up, take the reins and show leadership. I just want them to gel.”
Gomez put a strong emphasis on recruiting during her first full offseason, which resulted in getting a promising group of eight incoming freshmen who are ready to make an immediate impact.
“I think the incoming freshmen class is very talented,” Gomez said. “From the top to the bottom, we have more depth than we had last season at every position. We’re going to have a little bit of a different look as far as the athleticism of these kids, but I don’t think it will take them as long to adjust because our core knows what we want to do.”
Last season was a transition year for the Gorillas with a new head coach, but they are ready to make a push for the playoffs in Gomez’ sophomore season.
“My personal goal for the team is to be competitive in the MIAA,” PSU middle blocker Taylor Unke said. “That is definitely a big goal and we want to be better than last year. It’s exciting see the eight new people on the team, so we’ll see what happens.”
Although the freshmen have the necessary talent, the challenge will be getting them ready to produce at the college level in time for the first game on September 1 against Missouri-St. Louis.
“For the younger players, it’s all about getting them up to speed because the college game is faster and played at a higher level,” Gomez said. “You’re going to see them compete and work hard. I’m hoping we’re going to see a team that doesn’t fold or crumble at the end of close matches.”
Pitt State will feature one senior this season, so the strong junior class has been working on leadership skills in the offseason to help expedite the process.
“We have some solid juniors as far as leadership goes,” Gomez said. “We spent last spring doing leadership training. Coach Breanna [Lewis] and I trained the five juniors on what it takes to be a leader and I’m really proud of the way they’ve come along. They were talking about what kind of legacy that they want to leave without me saying it, so that was really exciting for me to hear.”
The juniors on the team have bought into the idea of being leaders on the floor and putting the team first.
“Being a leader on the team is a little different and gives you a unique point of view,” Unke said. “I’m excited to help raise these girls and try to help them out as best as I can. Coach has selected a few of us to help build leadership and instill a legacy for this program, so that’s what we’re trying to help these girls do. We want to help coach Gomez make this a better team to build that legacy.”
In addition to focusing on leadership, the returning players have also been pushing themselves to come out better than they've ever been.
“In the offseason, we did a lot of individual workouts,” Gomez said. “We were really stressing our right-side attack and getting our juniors Noelle Dooley and Lauren Regier to get involved in the offense. I think they’re two of our best hitters on the offensive side and I think they’re two of our best blockers as well. We’re kind of changing things a little bit and tailoring things to be a right-side attack offense as opposed to a heavy outside attack, so that’s what we worked on a lot this spring.”
The Gorillas will continue to put the finishing touches on the adjustments, which Gomez drew up after learning more about the conference and her own players during her rookie season as coach.
“I learned how tough the MIAA is,” Gomez said. “I knew it would be tough and people will tell you that, but until you live it on a daily basis, you don’t really realize that it’s a dog fight everyday. I think that’s better prepared me to maybe help them in the long run, especially in tight games. Maybe we won’t lose those close games if we can prepare for those situations ahead of time.”
After being picked No. 10 in the MIAA coaches’ poll, the Gorillas are determined to prove the doubters wrong.
“We want to be better than what we were last year,” Gomez said. “I’d like to get double-digit wins and I think that would be a success. I loved the fact that they ranked us No. 10 in the conference, but I wish they ranked us No. 12 because I love being that underdog. I want to surprise people and I want them to think that Pitt State gives them everything they can handle all the time.”
— Jordan Buckamneer is the sports editor of the Pittsburg Morning Sun. E-mail him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jbuckamneer.