UB volleyball looks to create different program culture under first-year head coach
‘Together, everyone achieves more.’
It’s a simple cliché that most college teams live by – telling friends, family and journalists alike that team camaraderie and chemistry will help propel through yet another rigorous season.
But for the volleyball team, it’s way past a cliché – it’s the phrase the Bulls will build their entire season around.
The Bulls (0-3), aside from losing important fixtures from last year, know they have a long road to climb in order to reach the top of the conference, especially with an opening weekend sweep where they only grabbed one set win in three matches against Villanova (2-1), Stony Brook (1-2) and No. 1 ranked Penn State (3-0) over this past weekend at the Penn State Classic.
But fueled by a powerful class of freshmen, enthusiastic seniors and a first-year coach that yearns to build a new locker-room culture, the Bulls may have a shot of sitting atop of the conference despite a lack of experience from top to the bottom.
“We’re working on getting people more consistent, more efficient. And it’s coming at the right time,” said first-year head coach Blair Brown Lipsitz. “I expect that to continue … we are building a culture. When the freshmen came in, it was so important to us to make sure those freshman are buying in to our culture. And our seniors have done a great job.”
Lipsitz is entering her first year as a head coach just five years removed from a stellar run as a leader of the Penn State volleyball team. During her tenure, she helped bring four national titles to Penn State and earned first-team All-American nods twice.
Her first test as a coach came against her alma mater – the Bulls dropped three straight sets, nothing to her surprise. Lipsitz understands that Penn State is a powerhouse and Buffalo is a Mid-Major program – she wasn’t expecting a victory, but a learning experience from playing the No. 1 team in the nation. It’s a vital step in the team’s growth, according to Lipsitz.
But it’s much easier said than done. Confidence and creating a culture can only propel a team so far into a season. This season, the team will not return three players – two of which were important pieces to another above .500 season (17-15) last year.
Perhaps the most difficult loss to grip is Tahleia Bishop, who left the team due to undisclosed reasons after last season. Bishop, who would have been a senior, was one of the team’s top players as she led the squad in kills (376) and total points (410.5).
But the biggest loss was the one at the head of the program. Former head coach Reed Sunahara accepted a head coaching position at West Virginia, ending his Buffalo stint after only one season. Lipsitz became the third head coach for the program in as many years.
Although the Bulls only grabbed one set victory in a three-match weekend, Lipsitz feels confident in the team’s chances this season as long as it continues its trend of buying into the Buffalo volleyball culture.
Lipsitz said she wants to build a culture where a player isn’t afraid to ask the coaches a question or where a freshman doesn’t feel intimidated to be standing on the same court as a senior. She wants to be part of an environment where a player willingly works twice as hard on one day to make up for their lackluster practice the day before.
Senior Amber Hatchett said Lipsitz is the type of coach that will let a player figure out a problem for herself, rather than hover to force a solution. Lipsitz believes in patience as a virtue, especially with a young team.
And so far, it seems buying into the program is an upward trend, from a senior like Hatchett to Raven Jordan, the most prolific freshman talent on the team, according to multiple teammates.
“I really like the coaching so far,” Jordan said. “Coach Blair makes sure we’re trying to get better every single day we step in the gym. We want higher expectations every time we come in. I was raised in a home where you work hard and be tenacious, always be the first to volunteer and do something, even if you don’t know how to do it.”
Jordan is the most touted of six incoming freshmen, all of whom are expected to play a role in this upcoming season, according to Lipsitz. The outside hitter from Virginia was lauded Lipsitz and her teammates for her performances during practice and natural skill set. She helped her Briar Woods High School squad to an AAAAA Championship this past year as the starting outside hitter.
The other freshmen – Abby Beecher, Madison Clark, Valisha Watkins, Kelly Fitzpatrick and Megan Wernette – have all impressed Lipsitz in their first taste of collegiate sports. Lipsitz said she likes to watch the freshmen practice because they “all do their own things to impress me.”
But Lipsitz also admitted that Jordan and the rest of the freshmen still have learning to do and hopes the decorated seniors will carry the load as the underclassmen begin to learn the ropes.
The team returns four seniors, including Hatchett and outside hitter Megan Lipski. Lipski finished second on the team with 319 digs, second only to sophomore Niki Bozinoski’s 427. Hatchett, a defensive specialist, averaged .86 blocks per set last season, which was good enough for second on the team.
And to fit in with the team philosophy, even the oldest players on the team are ready to play with and learn from the entire team.
“Coach Blair has been building everyone’s confidence on the team,” Hatchett said. “I know a lot of us veterans have been helping the freshmen’s transition very well into playing with each other. The practices have been going pretty smoothly. Everyday, we’re working on something new.”
The team will continue its non-conference play when it takes on Washington (3-0) on Friday at 4 p.m. The team’s first home match will take place on Sept. 24 against Akron (1-2), which also kicks off the MAC season.
Jordan Grossman is the co-senior sports editor and can be reached at email@example.com