OFFSEASON CHANGES LEAD TO NEW DIRECTION IN JAGUAR VOLLEYBALL

Changes to the University of South Alabama volleyball program coaching staff and roster in the spring of 2021 helped mold a new direction in Jaguar volleyball.

Jesse Ortiz was selected the program’s 15th head coach on March 16, 2021. He named Shawn McLaughlin and Maris Below assistant coaches by the end of April, and the staff then began the process of putting together a roster for the fall.

A solid core of returners from the 2020 season brought a wealth of experience to the court for the new staff:  Juanita Monteiro-Pai, Rachel Hickey, Hannah Maddux, Paige Lynn, Maddie Soboleski, Lillie Simons and Morgan Stalcup. 

Maddux led the Jags in kills (219) and kills per set (2.70) in 2020, Soboleski paced the team in assists (666) and assists per set (8.12), and tied for the team lead in service aces (28) and service aces per set (0.34). Hickey led the squad in digs (361) and digs per set (4.40).

But the departure of six letterwinners, including 2020 Sun Belt Conference Freshman of the Year Rebecca Walk, left the new coaching staff with several holes to fill for the 2021 season.

“One of the biggest challenges I had early on was just trying to get the job handled while still realizing I had to go recruit,” Ortiz said. “I was drowning, but that is part of it and I loved every second of it because I have been looking forward to being a head coach again for years. That was one of the biggest taxes, that I didn’t have a lot of time. Now once I got Shawn (McLaughlin) in, that helped because I had someone to help me pull the rope. And then you look around and see we have seven players. So what do I need? 

“We were just looking for outstanding individuals. I like big brains, because I think they learn information better. One of the first questions I ask is what is their GPA and major. We just went through and rated individuals; we have a rating system, so we rate their athleticism, their volleyball skills and some intangibles they bring to the table and what position they could play for us and how they could help us. That was the biggest thing – just finding them. 

“Honestly, it kind of worked itself out. They also found us. They were looking for opportunities and had heard about this place. They wanted to see it; they heard it was good looking but they didn’t know what to expect. Once we got them here and they saw this place, every single one of them were like, ‘Oh I’m in, I want to be here.’ And they also wanted to talk with me and get a feel for who I am. I think in this day and age people want to have healthy environments, and that is a thing we should all be striving to do – striving to make sure that our student-athletes are learning and we are good teachers to them. And then, we have standards and you want to push them but you also have to make sure you don’t just crush them or wear them out. If that is what we do, then we need to really rethink ourselves as educators.”

Four Tennessee Volunteers joined together and transferred to South Alabama: Carissa Bradford, Niki Capizzi, Kailey Keeble and Madisen Werdell. Kennedy Wallace transferred from Northern Illinois as a graduate student after a successful four-year career for the Huskies. Alayna Maslinski joined the program from Christian Brothers University in Tennessee after playing the first two seasons of her career at Wichita State. 

Werdell’s desire to transfer from Tennessee stemmed, in large part, from her aspiration to attend medical school, which Tennessee did not offer.

“I went into the (transfer) portal with a desire to be somewhere new and enjoyable, somewhere to compete, and most importantly, somewhere to continue my academics,” she said. “One of the problems I faced when I was at Tennessee was the Covid year added another year to my eligibility, and I wanted to go to medical school. But they don’t have a medical school connected to the University of Tennessee, so I would have had to have gone to somewhere like UT-Martin or somewhere else and it just would have been impossible to finish out my last years there without having to transfer my last year and play one season with a team. And that’s not what I wanted; I like to get connected with the girls and coaches.”

South Alabama was one of the schools that reached out to Werdell in the portal. Once she researched the school and program, she was sold. That decision was the first domino to fall in the process that helped lead to a transformation of the 2021 Jaguar roster. 

“They have a medical school for me, it is close to the beach and it is in the south, which I love,” Werdell said. “It was just lining up with everything I needed, and that is why I chose South. Going into December (2020), I started to really think about my future. My parents and I came to the decision that the best option for me academically would be to find somewhere new so I have three more years to grow in a new community.”

While at Tennessee, Werdell’s roommates were Bradford and Capizzi, both of whom transferred in from other schools:  Bradford from Pacific and Capizzi from Eastern Washington. Keeble and Werdell knew each other prior to enrolling at Tennessee.

“Kailey had been committed since her sophomore year, and I committed my junior season so we got to connect and see each other at tournaments and games before we got there. We all spent so much time together and got really close.”

Bradford, Capizzi and Keeble remained in touch once Werdell transferred to USA last spring. Each of them looked to transfer due to differing reasons, and visited Werdell in Mobile as their curiosity of the program grew.

“They fell in love with this place,” Werdell said. “They mentioned to me that they wanted to go into the portal in general. They just weren’t happy with where they were at, and entered the portal. They said, ‘Hey Dell, now that we are in the portal, can we reach out to your coach?’ And I said, ‘Go for it.’ I was sure Coach (Ortiz) was going to be open to it. He was great with that. I was able to just tell him that I had a few friends who entered the portal, and asked him if he would want to talk to them. And the rest is history.”

“I am a two-time transfer,” Bradford explained. “I first transferred from University of the Pacific in northern California, and just wanted a new opportunity with a bigger school experience so I went off to Tennessee. I adored the school, but volleyball didn’t go the way I wanted it to; it was the Covid year, and it was just crazy so I unfortunately had to find a way out. I ended up here and I am super stoked. It has been such a blessing with the new (coaching) staff and the new girls. And the fact that I and a few other girls came from Tennessee was pretty awesome.

“My teammate, Madisen Werdell, transferred down here first. I was able to come visit her over the spring as a friend. I came and visited and she showed me around, and I liked it. At that point, I was looking at other schools and this obviously popped up as another option and it has been great how it has worked out.”

Keeble, who was rated the No. 9 setter in the nation out of high school by PrepVolleyball.com, was looking for a fresh start in her career. After talking with Ortiz and Werdell, Keeble’s interest was peaked.

“After I came here and saw the campus and talked to the coaches, I knew this was the place for me,” Keeble said. “It just really felt like home. We did a lot of team-bonding over the summer, and everyone gets along great and is having a good time. Everyone on the team wants to be good and they know we have the potential to be good. We trust our coaching staff a lot, and we’re just excited to see how far it can take us.”

Werdell said the chemistry the group developed in their time in Knoxville, Tenn., followed to Mobile, and is spurred by an intense competitiveness. 

“We all draw off of each other and we get on each other because we’re so close. I think the team sees that and is buying into it. We get after it in practice; it gets really competitive. Our competitive energy has been great for the team, and we’ve made a bunch of new friends. It’s not super noticeable that we’re all friends when we’re on the court, we’ve really just incorporated the idea of just being open.”

The impact of the transfers meshed with the returners and freshmen was felt immediately when the Jaguars swept through the Jaguar Invitational (Aug. 27-28) with three consecutive wins in straight sets to kick off the Ortiz era.

“When you transfer, usually it is for a few reasons. One, you may not be playing or liked the previous environment,” Ortiz said. “In Kennedy’s case it wasn’t any of that; she just had an extra year and was looking to get some education out of it. Our education here at South is the reason she wanted to come, and that was huge. She had good coaching and experience at her previous institution, and she wanted to come here for that. And they all wanted a chance to do something a little special here. 

“They knew the team was depleted. I will always remember this group because they came in when this program was down with a lack of bodies when people had left. They took a chance on South and on me, and I will always remember that. I’ll never forget that they came here when it wasn’t as cool and wanted to do something together. That was the force that kind of binded them all together. They saw an opportunity, and then they started looking around and saw talent in the gym. As they started identifying the talent in the room, they realized they had to raise their level a little bit. I don’t think a lot of them thought they would have to do that. But now I think it is showing in the gym in our practices in how they get after it and how hard they compete. We have a lot of different people who are helping us raise our level right now. I don’t think it is where we want it to be at this point, but we’re definitely striving to raise it together and I think that is super important.”

South Alabama opened Sun Belt Conference play with a sweep of UT Arlington on Sept. 24, followed by a sweep of defending champion Texas State the next day to extend its home win streak to eight matches dating back to last year’s Georgia Southern series.

Through 14 matches, Keeble has recorded nine double-doubles. Soboleski – who made a position switch from setter to outside hitter – has averaged 3.10 kills per set, while Bradford has averaged 2.84 kills per set with a .255 hitting percentage. Hickey, who also transferred to USA from IUPUI prior to last season, is averaging 4.19 digs per set also.

“We only had seven players in the spring, so coming into the summer and adding so many new faces to the program was a huge challenge, but it was a great challenge to not only show leadership but learn leadership skills to get there,” Hickey said. “People coming from all different areas and backgrounds, and being able to mix all together as one in just a few months is crazy. It is hard to jell right away, but it was incredible how fast we did. It just shows how much of a team we are off the court as we are on the court.”

South Alabama (9-5, 2-0 SBC) will open a four-match road swing this weekend with matches at Arkansas State (Friday) and Little Rock (Saturday), followed by SBC East Division matchups at Appalachian State (Oct. 8) and Coastal Carolina (Oct. 10). From there, the Jaguars will have just four home matches left out of their 10 remaining dates on the schedule before gearing up for the Sun Belt Conference Championship (Nov. 17-20) in Foley, Ala.

“I want them to be great at volleyball, but I want them to be great at volleyball at the end of the season,” Ortiz said. “And I want my group to grow. As we keep on progressing each week, we’re a little bit stronger and better – a little more savvy.”

The Jaguars will be in search of the program’s first-ever Sun Belt Conference title and NCAA Regional appearance at the SBC Championship in Foley, which would be a welcome and deserved change for a program headed on a new course.

For more information about South Alabama athletics, check back with USAJaguars.com, and follow the Jaguars at Twitter.com/WeAreSouth_JAGS. Season tickets for all Jaguar athletic events can be purchased by calling (251) 461-1USA (1872).

Join the Rally Score Club, the volleyball specific support club of the Jaguar Athletic Fund. All donations to the Rally Score Club go directly to support the South Alabama volleyball program. For more information on how you can join visit:  jaguarathleticfund.com/rallyscoreclub.

—USA—

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