Scores can often be deceiving. For the casual onlooker who sees the 0-3 score from LSU’s loss to No. 21 Penn State, it may be natural to assume that the Tigers were outmatched, and that in their first matchup against a nationally ranked team, they fell flat. The simple conclusion might be that LSU just isn’t quite at the level of Penn State, the gold standard of college volleyball programs.
If you look deeper, that really isn’t the impression at all, and it isn’t the one LSU came away with, either.
With set scores of 20-25, 24-26 and 25-27, the Tigers truly fought toe-to-toe with the Nittany Lions. The final two frames each came down to 24-24 deuces; in both cases, Penn State would score the crucial consecutive points and win the set. Still, to hear head coach Tonya Johnson tell it, LSU easily could’ve been up 2-1 after three sets instead of on their way to the locker room.
“It helped us to understand how good we can be if we’re battling Penn State like that. For us to be right there, to be just inches away from it being different, I hope it gave them some confidence,” she said.
The loss came as a result of many small mistakes by LSU, which Penn State pounced on from the very beginning. Leading up to this match, the Tigers had won the opening set of every one of their games, a streak that was broken Saturday.
“We may have been tired from the previous day, but I thought we were a little flat to begin the match and probably the flattest we’ve come out in six matches,” Johnson said. “We talked a lot about changing our mentality, not waiting for the game to come to you, but to go get it from the very first serve.”
Though the team was not happy with the loss, it did not detract from what was overall a very successful weekend. As the hosts of the Tiger Challenge, LSU swept both Troy and Iowa State with scores of 3-0.
In all three matches, LSU gave great effort, and the corrections from last weekend’s Tiger Classic were clear. LSU scored more blocks, committed fewer service errors and didn’t allow the other team to go on extended runs. The Tiger offense was also much more effective–on the weekend, the team had a hitting percentage of .243, compared to last weekend’s .221.
“I think they’re hungry to get better. I think they really and truly feel like we can be a really good team if we change these things. When you see a team being intentional about changing some things and intentional about the process, it makes a big difference in your play,” Johnson said regarding the team’s improvement.
The team’s willingness to take the coaching staff’s criticisms and make adjustments on the court led to a much better performance in the Tiger Challenge. Much of the reason for the offensive breakthrough was a deliberate effort to spread the ball around, particularly to the middle blockers, who Johnson said needed to get more involved following the Tiger Classic. The team’s starting blockers, senior Anita Anwusi and sophomore Alia Williams, had 16 and 13 kills, respectively, across the three matches. Johnson was pleased with Williams’s performance in particular.
“I thought that Alia Williams made the biggest jump in terms of what she did offensively compared to what she did the first weekend. You could tell, when she walked into the gym every day, that she was very intentional about what she was doing. She processed everything and went about changing the things that she was doing and doing it the way we wanted her to do it. She found out how successful she can be.”
This weekend, LSU will again face a stiff challenge as it travels to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to play University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Friday and No. 23 Marquette on Saturday. Both teams are coming off good seasons--with Marquette having made the NCAA Tournament--and strike quickly on offense, so LSU will have to be at its best. It will also be the Tigers’ first experience playing on the road this season, and the coaching staff is eager to see how the team responds to an unfamiliar environment.
There are still small tweaks to be made for LSU–Johnson mentioned the team needed to be better in crunch time and that other teams were typically more physical than the Tigers–but it’s clear that they’re on the right track. Relative to her expectations heading into the season, Johnson is happy with where LSU is so far.
“Considering the progress that we’ve made from the first weekend to the second weekend, as a staff we’re super excited about the improvement that this team can make over the course of the season. So for us, it’s not about where we start, it’s about how we finish. So we want to make sure we continue to get better and that we’re peaking at the right time in the season.”