McRoberts Reflects on Historic Season
Jan. 24, 2018
By Brian Scott Rippee, OleMissSports.com
Ole Miss head volleyball coach Steven McRoberts took a moment to take in the scene during his team’s semifinal match of the National Invitational Volleyball Championship against West Virginia.
An enthusiastic crowd of over 500 had just caused the Mountaineer server to send one wide for a point for the Rebels. McRoberts could finally sense the home court advantage in the Gillom Center he’d been hoping for when he took over the program in 2014.
“That’s the difference between getting that point and us feeling pressure on our side,” he said.
The crowd was a byproduct of the interest in the program his team created towards the end of the 2017 season, one that culminated in six straight wins and winning the NIVC Championship on their home floor. In the championship match against Texas Tech, over 1,000 fans showed up to support.
“It was the loudest I have ever heard the Gillom,” McRoberts said. “For a lot of those people, it was their first ever match. They’re coming because they see it is a championship match and it is another power five school.”
An otherwise young team led by seniors Lexi Thompson and Kate Gibson had found their stride late in the year. McRoberts had been trying to get his team to believe this success was possible and the end of the 2017 season has given him tangible evidence. The Rebels tore through the bracket of the tournament, only dropping one set and beating the likes of Texas Tech, Stephen F. Austin and West Virginia. The team had gelled and the result spoke for itself.
“It was great preparation for us trying to make the actual tournament,” rising junior and tournament MVP Emily Stroup said. “Now we know what it is like playing in the postseason.”
It is difficult for a program to try to break through in the rigorous Southeastern Conference. Before McRoberts took over the Rebels had finished 12th in back-to-back years. McRoberts was tasked with building a new culture. This year, the team was nearly a .500 team in league play and were a couple of points away from cracking the top five in the league. The Rebels lost four matches, including three in the SEC, in five sets.
“We are right there,” McRoberts said. “One of the things I am thankful for is that Ross (Bjork) and Lynnette (Johnson) see how competitive we have been. They asked us to change the culture to a more positive culture and we have done that.”
McRoberts knows this program is knocking on the door and his players are beginning to believe that too.
“I think it gives us a realistic hope and a lot of confidence,” rising junior Jordan Fate said. “I feel really good already about 2018.”
The biggest difference between the Rebels being in the middle of the league and being in the top tier is consistency. The margin for error in the SEC is small and few bad points can turn into a lost match and one loss can quickly multiply into three. That can be the difference in earning a bid into the NCAA Tournament and being left out.
“The details matter,” McRoberts said. “When you lose by one point, two points over the course of a match, it’s that serve in the first five points we hit into the net or someone taking a wild swing at one. Whatever the execution is, it may not seem like a big deal early, but it becomes a big deal late.”
Ole Miss’ play through the last six games of the season offered the consistency they’ve been looking for as well as a boost in confidence.
“What was really good for us is that we started to peak towards the end,” Fate said. “It was good for next season if we can make the NCAA Tournament. It was super fun because we were playing our best volleyball at the end of the year.”
The team was able to send Thompson and Gibson out on a joyous note with their tournament title. They were two of the best players in program history and will be difficult to replace. What they did on the court spoke loudly, but it was their intangible leadership that will be missed the most.
“I think it will be hard to replace them as players, but every team has to do that,” Fate said. “With them, it was that they were such good leaders. That is what we are going to have to work on. Yes, we will have to replace them as players and we will be fine, but replacing their leadership is going to be the biggest part of what we have to do.”
McRoberts feels he has players ready to fill their shoes.
For me, it is my leadership,” rising junior middle blocker Nayo Warnell said. “I am a quiet person, but now I am an upperclassman. I need to work on my leadership.”
The goal for next year is quite clear. Last season was a stepping stone rather than a peak. The team would like to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. For McRoberts, he’d like to make a splash on the radar as opposed to fly under it, and the Rebels are well on their way.
“I sure would love to go to some of these places and quit hearing how great we are and lose,” McRoberts said. “’Hey you are doing a really great job with your program and it looks like y’all will make the NCAA Tournament’ would be a lot nicer of a conversation than ‘hey you are doing a really great job with your program’ and then we lose in four or lose in five. Just getting over that hump is going to be huge for us.”
For more information on Ole Miss Volleyball, follow the Rebels on Twitter, @OleMissVB, on Facebook at OleMissVolleyball and on Instagram at OleMissVB. Also follow Coach McRoberts on Twitter, @CoachMcRoberts.
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