Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — Niagara University’s volleyball team is ranked seventh in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference heading into their season opening games this weekend.
After winning three consecutive MAAC Tournaments from 2009-2011 and losing the 2012 semifinal to eventual champion Fairfield, the seventh-place ranking by their peers is a recognition that the team is rebuilding, with no seniors. Its most experienced members are juniors, and there are only three of them on a roster of ten.
The new head coach, however, will suggest that not having seniors does not mean lacking experience.
“I feel like we got really, really strong incoming kids,” said first-year head coach Vilis Ozols, who came to Niagara in February after steering the University of Wyoming’s women’s volleyball squad to a 42-22 record in two years. “It’s not like settling for the best. It’s picking the best in the region knowing they’re going to contribute to the program.”
The Purple Eagles open their Fall 2013 season on Friday at the University at Buffalo Invitational, where they’ll face the host Bulls twice with a match against Temple University in between.
This year’s squad will be led by junior Allison Reis, who is best known as a defensive specialist, or libero. Earlier this week, she was named a member of the 2013 Preseason All-MAAC Team.
Among the other three juniors who represent the team’s elder stateswomen is Amherst resident Tara Topolski.
“Definitely, I learned from the seniors from last year who graduated,” said Topolski about what she learned from her now former elder teammates. “They taught us a lot about leadership and working as a team. I think I learned a lot from them.”
Fellow junior Amanda Sedore was a starter in her first two years. Her coach contends that just because they lack seniors does not mean they lack experience. His newest players will also have the opportunity to gain their own experience in very short time.
“One of the things that we can offer to a really strong incoming freshman recruit is the fact they’re going to be an impact player. They’re going to have a role,” said Ozols.
Among those who found that appealing was Getzville resident and freshman Emily Hopkins, a 5-foot-11 setter who played previously for Williamsville North High School and the Niagara Frontier Volleyball Club.
“Coach really kind of talked me into it,” said Hopkins when asked how she was convinced to enroll at Niagara. “I liked the program. I loved the campus when I came in and the fact that I’d be able to sort of step in and have a shot of playing a lot.”
Indeed, with the squad being younger Hopkins looks forward to learning while also imparting some of her own leadership by example.
“Right off the bat, starting to be just like a rock for the team,” said Hopkins. “Being able to be their go-to, to know what’s happening. If people are having a bad day, calm them down. Even though I’m young, just be a leader.”
Following the UB tourney, the Purple Eagles will travel to Akron, Ohio for the Akron Invitational beginning September 6. Niagara will take five road trips and face eight different opponents before hosting its first game on September 28 against Siena.
Defending conference champions Fairfield will visit Niagara on November 16. First, though, they’ll host the Purple Eagles on October 13.
“Then you’ve got Siena, who is looking really strong and will be hosting the MAAC Championship after the regular season, so there’s an added incentive there,” said Ozols of other rivals. “I think Manhattan’s going to be pretty tough this year.”
Of course, there’s also the most traditional rival, Canisius. The Golden Griffins host their first meeting on October 2, with the Purple Eagles hosting the rematch on October 19.
The regular season ends with Niagara hosting Quinnipiac on November 17, followed by the MAAC Championships beginning November 22.