Joe Dodson, Contributing Writer
After a year and two months of uncertainty, practice and intrasquad scrimmages, volleyball players will take the court and start their season against Liberty University on Jan. 22.
Usually, January is a time of debriefing for the program, according to head coach Jody Rogers. However, Rogers and her team are preparing to defend their Atlantic 10 regular season title.
Last season, the Rams received an at-large bid for the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history and lost to Cincinnati in the first round. The season was moved from the fall 2020 semester to spring 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Rams will play 19 matches: 13 conference and six non-conference.
The roster looks different compared to last season’s, after losing eight key players to graduation and transfers. They have rebuilt the roster with 10 new players, including nine freshmen and one transfer from Memphis University, sophomore middle blocker Sabria Cooper.
The team has six returners who will be counted on to play big roles this season. Senior outside hitter Paula Neciporuka is now in her third season as a starter after earning A-10 all-academic team honors last season.
“I think it’s going to be really new and surprising for other teams,” said Neciporuka. “We are a new team and everyone has something to give to this team.”
The team also returns junior setter Dani Jo David, who ranked second on the team in assists last season with 4.82 per set.
According to Rogers, multiple freshmen will be given the opportunity to start right away. Key players in their 45-3 conference record, which was over a three-year span, have now graduated.
Among the graduates was middle blocker Jasmine Sneed, who was named First-Team All-A-10, and is now playing professionally for Khimik Yuzhny in Ukraine.
“It’s just like changing of the guard,” Rogers said of the team’s standard of play. “It really doesn’t change; the leadership keeps coming in.”
Rogers’ philosophy is that there’s no reason for a young player to wait to make an impact.
“It’s your time right now, and you can be great early,” Rogers said. “They’re taking on that initiative.”
Despite the young age of the roster, Rogers is impressed with the way the team has handled a turbulent off-season of navigating COVID-19 protocols.
“Their maturity level is so high and their handling of adversity is amazing,” Rogers said. “It is making our culture a lot stronger here and I love being a part of it.”
Cooper said she is excited to watch freshman middle blocker Jasmine Knight’s defensive ability on the net.
“She’s going to be a really good addition to the middle because she has a fast arm and strength,” Cooper said about Knight. “She is always up in transition; she is a very quick player.”
Cooper, a 6-foot-2-inch Oklahoma City native, will add big game experience from her time playing in the American Athletic Conference with Memphis University. She averaged 1.73 kills and .67 blocks per set while hitting .203.
“I’ve had experiences playing bigger teams,” Cooper said. “So I have a high standard and the ability to call people out and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to be doing.”
Last season, the Rams were first in the conference in hitting percentage, blocks, opponent assists and second in opponent hitting percentage. Rogers is hoping newcomers like freshman middle blockers Kylie Loftis, Knight and Cooper can continue the high standard on defense.
The team will have several opportunities to show off their newly added talent against the likes of Duke on Feb. 9 — currently third in the ACC after a shortened fall season — and James Madison on Feb. 22. They also face ODU on Jan. 23, who are in their inaugural season, but the Feb. 19 rivalry matchup against Dayton is the one Neciporuka has circled on her calendar.
“Definitely Dayton, they are our usual opponents,” Neciporuka said about the matches she was most looking forward to.
The Rams will open their season at Liberty on Jan. 22 at 10 a.m. They will have their home opener against George Mason on Jan. 31 at 1 p.m.