The Gonzaga volleyball team (2-6 WCC) came up short in both games of a doubleheader against the 18th-ranked University of San Diego (8-0 WCC) over the weekend.
In the Friday afternoon match, the first set involved aggressive play on both sides of the net. The Zags led early after kills from senior pin hitters Sarah Penner and Chapin Gray, but the Toreros' sharp serving and intimidating blocking presence led them on a 7-0 run of their own. The Zags fought to stay in the set with service aces from sophomore setter Tia Andaya and junior outside hitter Kennedy Croft, but the Toreros took the set 25-19.
Set two began another point-for-point battle until a 5-0 run behind two kills and a block assist by Toreros’ sophomore opposite hitter Grace Frohling broke open the set. The Zags continued to struggle against the Toreros’ lethal pin hitters, and GU dropped the set 25-17. Penner and Croft paced GU offensively in set two contributing five and three kills, respectively.
The third set got off to a similar start with the two sides trading points. GU’s offense looked stronger as they had 12 kills compared to seven and nine in the previous sets. The Torero block again proved to be too much for the Zags later in the set, as USD had five blocks compared to GU’s zero. The Toreros took the third and final set 25-17.
Andaya led the Zags on Friday with 19 assists, hitting at an .800 clip with four kills on five attempts, serving three aces and digging nine Torero attacks. Croft and Penner added six kills apiece.
The Zags had several improvements they needed to make in order to better contend with the nationally-ranked Toreros.
“We had to slow down their outside hitters,” GU head coach Diane Nelson said. “And then we had to score offensively.”
The Zags came out doing just that on Saturday afternoon, attacking from all angles and making very few unforced errors. Their scrappy defense made the Toreros work to earn every point with great coverage near the net to handle USD's off-speed shots and deflections off the block.
GU’s improved defense and block coverage gave hitters the confidence they needed to be aggressive.
“As a hitter, you want to go up with full confidence that if you do get blocked your defense is right behind you. I thought that was really good tonight,” Croft said.
Stellar defense and balance of kills from Croft, Andaya, Gray and sophomore middle hitter Alyssa Hughes allowed the Zags to maintain the lead. Back-to-back attacking errors from the Toreros ended the set at 25-19 in favor of GU.
Set two saw the Zags fall into a 5-1 hole early, but a run led by Hughes allowed GU to come back within two at 15-13. When Hughes rotated out to be replaced by senior libero Julia Talarico, the Zags struggled to run offense in the middle and block the Torero pin hitters. USD cruised to a 25-17 win. Hughes had four kills and a block assist in set two to lead GU.
In the third set, the teams were neck-and-neck fighting hard for every point. Neither team was ahead by more than three points until USD graduate student outside hitter Thana Fayad tallied three consecutive kills, leading the Toreros to a 25-19 victory.
Although the Zags fell behind in and dropped sets two and three, the momentum never seemed to sway in favor of the Toreros in the Martin Centre.
“What we talk about a lot within our team is just keeping a consistent energy no matter the score. Or no matter who we're playing. I think we did a really good job at executing that tonight,” Croft said.
GU’s hitters caught fire in set four, with Andaya attacking aggressively and often when setting from the front row. Hughes led the charge in set four for the Zags with emphatic kills that went completely untouched by the USD defense. Although the Zags’ lead shrunk to as few as four late, Croft sealed the set 25-19 with a kill, forcing a tiebreaker.
The fifth set continued to feature excellent play from both sides with both teams limiting unforced errors Three consecutive kills from Fayad allowed the Toreros to gain a three-point lead. The unfazed Zags continued near-perfect serve-receive and defense, but the USD outside hitters continued to dominate, handing the Zags a 15-10 loss in set five and a 3-2 loss for the match.
Croft and Gray led the Zags offensively with 14 kills apiece while Hughes added 13. Talarico and Croft each contributed 14 digs. Senior defensive specialist Gretchen Rudel also had an impressive 29 of 31 successful service receptions and great hustle plays on defense, allowing the GU offensive rhythm to stay consistent.
“We passed well which kept us in our offense and we worked our tails off in transition. So, I gotta give it to the hitters for what they're doing but definitely to our serve receive line as well, big-time,” Nelson said.
One noticeable improvement from last weekend was the Zags’ ability to persevere in long rallies and win those points.
“Those long rallies, when we win those, it's just an energy boost for our team. And it gives us the momentum so they're super fun to win. And it was really good volleyball going on,” Croft said.
Nelson echoed Croft’s sentiment, praising the team’s perseverance for keeping them in the game.
“You surprise yourself sometimes when you just go for it,” Nelson said. “You have to have this mindset that the ball's not down until the ball's down. I commend our girls for some of the plays they were making today. That's heart, for sure."
The Zags have continued to gain confidence from these matches as they head into a doubleheader against Loyola Marymount University on Feb. 22 and 23.
"We're capable of beating anyone in this conference,” Nelson said. “We gotta put our heads down and go back to work. It never ends for us.”