For the Gonzaga women’s volleyball team, the season postponement in the fall was a minor setback for a major comeback. The senior-laden squad looks to build upon its seventh place finish in the West Coast Conference in 2019 after being picked to finish eighth in the conference in the WCC preseason poll.
Head Coach Diane Nelson guided her team through the teeth of the pandemic and believes they’ve emerged better than before.
“[The players] were very bummed at first,” Nelson said. “We have worked on controlling the controllables and this postponement was out of our control. We focused on what we get to do and are grateful for what we have together.”
Focusing on what the Zags can control is the theme for Nelson and her team as it prepares to take on defending WCC Champion and No. 23 ranked San Diego in its first match, which has since been postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test at San Diego.
“We do not get consumed over who is on the other side of the net, we care how we show up, how we support each other, and how we make each other better every play," Nelson said.
For the Zags to make each other better, every play they will rely on senior outside hitter Sarah Penner to be their comfort blanket. The 6-foot Penner was named to the preseason All-WCC team after leading the Bulldogs in kills, assists and points each of the last three seasons. Joining Penner is Katelyn Oppio, the 6-foot-1-inch redshirt senior middle blocker. Oppio saw action in 105 out of 110 sets and was an WCC All-Academic team honorable mention last year.
Nelson believes that for the Zags to have a successful campaign the seniors must step up.
“We have six seniors that have grown tremendously on this journey. They are mature, they are driven and they are committed to leaving a legacy," Nelson said.
Nonetheless, Oppio knows that in order for the squad to achieve their lofty preseason goals, it needs to rely on more than just the seniors.
“From freshmen to seniors, everyone on the team is capable of competing at a high level to make our team and program successful,” Oppio said.
Helping those seniors leave a legacy will be the group of underclassmen that includes five sophomores and three freshmen. Outside hitter Zoe Thiros will be a factor for the Zags on the offensive side of the net after the 5-foot-11-inch sophomore saw action in 25 matches as a true freshman.
“The WCC is a conference of giants, and even though we may not have that much size on our team, we play like giants," Thiros said. "We play to our strengths which are being gritty, scrappy and full of energy."
Nelson believes that one positive outcome of the season being postponed is the quality time the underclassmen spent with one another as they had no competition or travel.
“The beauty is, they enjoy each other," Nelson said. "They love each other and accept unique strengths.”
Nelson stated that she was “heartbroken” for the student athletes upon hearing of the season postponement on Sept. 13. Instead of sitting idly, Nelson and the team used their additional practice time to focus on skills they otherwise wouldn’t have had time to hone.
“We have spent more time than ever on how we can prepare mentally, how we respond when things get tough and, most importantly, invested in being a stronger team unit than ever,” Nelson said.
Thiros noted that one of the surprise benefits of the pandemic was the drive and cohesion created by months of waiting for their season.
“The pandemic has provided all of us with a chance to reevaluate our drive and motivation for why we do what we do,” Thiros said. “It has brought us all closer in the fact that we have become more resilient and adaptable than ever, and this waiting game has only fueled our desire to compete for a WCC title.”
Nelson noted that the team read a leadership book and invited outside speakers to help further sharpen her players' minds this offseason.
“We are focused on what we do, not just what we say in order to help others around us be their best,” Nelson said.
As the Zags look to improve upon last season’s seventh-place finish, Nelson believes the key to their offensive success lies in serving and passing ability. Like the overall theme of controlling what they can control, serving is the one aspect of a volleyball set that the Zags can control. Everything else is reactionary.
“The time we put in to locating our serve, increasing the velocity and developing our confidence behind the line will help us this season,” Nelson said. “Our athletes are bought into these. They see why we do what we do, now it’s time to get on the court.”
The buy-in referred to by Nelson was echoed by Thiros. Thiros said the team prides itself in being one of the best serving teams in the conference and catching teams off guard.
“Our key as a team to perform well in the conference is to play loose and lean on each other's strengths when we need it, and to simply enjoy the opportunity to be with each other all on the same side of the net again,” Thiros said. “We are playing like we have nothing to lose.”
After the cancellation of their season-opener against the University of Montana, the Zags will open the season with a matchup against the University of Pacific, Stockton on Feb. 5.