Pittsburgh, PA — For the past eight years, the Duquesne volleyball team has been considered among the top four teams in the conference, but that is not enough.
“These are hard-working athletic kids that are cohesive if we keep moving in the right direction,” coach Steve Opperman said. “They are showing us with each touch they get, good things are on the horizon.”
Duquesne will start this season having been ranked fourth in the Atlantic 10 Preseason Poll.
The first step towards this was a self-assessment at the end of last season’s 13-16 campaign, which represented the program’s lowest win total since 2007.
“I firmly believe our team chemistry is where we lost matches last season,” said Opperman. “We didn’t have that group of kids that were playing for each other. We had a few little outliers that messed things up so to speak. Everyone wanted to win, but they didn’t do it in the right fashion. When you lose sets 25-23 or 25-22, that’s the reason why. We are making a concerted effort to make sure that doesn’t happen. We’re going to work on the things we can control as a group.”
Duquesne would finish in fourth place in the Atlantic 10 regular season but fell 3-1 to Rhode Island in first round A-10 Championship play. Opperman would later state that the season was still a good one.
Throughout the preseason, the team’s emphasis has been placed on getting 1% better each day and playing with more of a chip on the shoulder mentality, something Opperman believes will elevate his squad.
There are plenty of new wrinkles on this year’s Duquesne team with freshman outside hitter Summer Slade, middle hitter Camryn Thomas and middle hitter Nicolette Jones all joining the team. Junior Erin Cunningham also is a new addition having transferred after serving as a libero at Loyola the past two seasons.
Though Jones was injured just prior to coming on campus and at the time of the interview for this piece, her status for Friday’s season opener was unknown.
In addition to these new faces, Opperman has an entirely new staff this year in Jill Loiars and Fran Bolletino.
Loiars was previously an assistant coach at Villanova and as a member of Dayton’s team as a student-athlete, won three Atlantic 10 Championships.
Bolletino was hired rather recently and most recently served on William & Mary’s staff. He also was a practice player and assistant at Penn State and helped the team win the 2013 NCAA Championship.
“Jill and Fran are learning what I want and expect and them being young allows them to bring new ideas to our program as well, sometimes we as coaches get fixated on how something will be and not deviating from that,” Opperman said. “The youth in the gym will be a nice mix to the program.”
In terms of leadership, Opperman cited senior libero Camryn Vecera who vocally was active in supporting her teammates on the court. Additionally, senior outside hitter Maddie Bazelak and junior setter Dani Suiter also were mentioned as ensuring the gym energy is consistent from beginning to end of practices.
Speaking on Suiter, Opperman believes she is one of if not the top setter in the conference.
“Dani is a sponge and just wants to learn everything,” he said. “She has little things she needs to tweak. I think she delivers a pretty good ball to most areas but she is doing a better job of understanding her weaknesses as a setter and is working to correct those.”
Heading into Friday’s season-opening contest against Lehigh, Opperman stated there would be a battle at every position with the idea of understanding who Duquesne will be as a team this season.
“We need to have a killer instinct,” said Opperman. “How well can we close and fight back?”