OGDEN — For a so-called “rebuilding year,” Weber State volleyball might have shown its program health most in the 2022 season, the eighth season under head coach Jeremiah Larsen.
Losing three of the program’s all-time greats to graduation, which included league MVP and All-American Rylin Adams, created a vacuum of experience and accomplishment. But a group of youngsters led by senior opposite Emma Mangum and junior outside hitter Dani Richins still rose to a tied-for-second finish in the Big Sky regular season, including a chance to play for first place in the final three matches.
But more is required, Larsen says, to return to the heights now expected at Weber State.
In their 2022 conference tournament opener Wednesday night, the Wildcats lost in five sets to No. 6 seed Montana State (25-21, 20-25, 25-20 13-25, 15-13) in front of a rowdy home crowd also featuring a smattering of MSU traveling faithful.
“Game five, they smoothed themselves out and we just didn’t make any form of concerted effort to make them uncomfortable. They were only uncomfortable when they made themselves uncomfortable,” Larsen said. “It shows the immaturity of our volleyball team just a little bit.”
That ended Weber State’s streak of three consecutive appearances in the conference tournament championship match. The Wildcats finish the season 17-11 overall after going 11-5 in Big Sky regular-season play.
“If this is a rebuild year, we’ll take it. But this is only a nice rebuilding year if we respond and get better next season. If not, we’re just floating in space and we’ll keep getting the same result over and over again,” Larsen said. “So it’s a nice year for a team that lost a bunch of really good volleyball players but at the same time, the potential in this volleyball team is way more than what we were able to accomplish this season.”
Weber State’s roster is talented enough to compete for championships but must learn to fight, he said.
“I just don’t think we’re as tough as we’ve been in the past,” Larsen said. “When life is good for us, life is good, but when we get kicked in the teeth a little bit, we don’t respond very well, we get emotional, we don’t have grit, we aren’t resilient… we ‘ve got to start trusting the process that the coaching staff puts in place, and then make it work so we don’t have this happen again next season.”
Mangum and opposite Riley Weinert are the seniors departing the program, with Mangum the lone starter. For that reason, Weber State has time to let Wednesday’s experience smolder and eventually set alight that competitive fire Larsen says was missing from this season.
“They’ve got to use this moment right here because they’re bummed by this. They want to do a lot of things and they know they’re pretty skilled and talented,” Larsen said. “So I challenged them and asked if they want to have this experience again, or make sure it doesn’t. How you react right now and going into the spring is going to determine everything. We’ve got to be tougher.”
Richins, a former league MVP herself, returns next season for her senior campaign after being one of a few players to spend some time out of their preferred position, so to speak, to make the pieces work. And freshmen middle blockers Brielle Rueckert (.376) and Saane Katoa (.340) were 1-2 in the Big Sky in hitting percentage and 4-5 in blocks.
WSU’s two signees this fall are both outside hitters to bring more depth and firepower to that position: Nana Asiata from Herriman and Ali Wiest from Mesa, Arizona.
Asiata is a 5-foot-10 player known to be a strong athlete, a big jumper and a competitor. Wiest is a 6-foot hitter who stood out due to her love of the game and the competition.
“I like what we have. I think we have the talent necessary to compete for a championship. The thing that sets this team apart from teams in years past is their grit, their fight, their competitiveness, and we just aren’t there yet,” Larsen said. “So we’ll go to work and try to get tougher, and see what happens.”