Argos 3, Wolves 1.
(Official release courtesy of the University of Providence Athletics Department)
GREAT FALLS, Mont. – Both to the naked eye and in the final statistics, the University of Providence volleyball team’s season opener sometimes looked like exactly what it was: the first match of the season for a team with almost as many new players as returners. Despite playing an ever-shifting lineup, and getting out the first game jitters, the Lady Argos still pulled out the win, 3-1 (25-17, 25-20, 20-25, 25-22) against Walla Walla University in a pseudo home match.
“In the first match of the year, you never know what to expect. We went in knowing that we were going to play a couple different lineups and wanted to get a lot of the kids in there today,” UP Head Coach Arunas Duda said. “I’m really excited by some of the stuff I saw today, but we also had a lot of confusion plays and let some things go that we shouldn’t have. We have some things to fix and playing in more matches will do that.”
While the match did take place in Great Falls, it wasn’t played inside the McLaughlin Center due to the court still being in the middle of a new paint job. Instead, the team went to nearby Great Falls Central Catholic to play.
The match was supposed to be a warm-up game against a Walla Walla team that went 1-23 in 2016, but the Wolves put up a tougher fight than expected. UP looked appropriately dominant to start the first set, with 4 kills from four different Argos accounting for the first 5 points.
Eventually, UP extended its lead to 14-5 but after that, the Wolves found their footing and played even to the end of the set.
In the first game of the season, two new players showed why they got the nod from Head Coach Arunas Duda to step into the Lady Argo starting lineup right away. The first was transfer junior Melissa Gonzalez, who was nearly perfect hitting from the outside hitter spot. In her 10 attack attempts in the first set, she finished with 7 kills and 0 errors. The other was the player passing her all those balls, freshman Ava Larkin. The 5-9 setter had 8 assists in the set, 1 dig, and no errors of any kind.
“Melissa played mostly as an outside in junior college and we weren’t sure who she would do moving to the outside, and she responded really well,” Duda said. “Ava was a little bit nervous at first which I think is expected, but both her and Dani played a very mature game.”
It was Walla Walla that started out the second set with a 4-1 lead, but despite some shifts in the Lady Argo rotation, the Providence was able to regain control with a 9-1 run fueled by Wolves’ attacking errors.
Defense continued to be the Lady Argos strong suite in set two. UP held WWU to a hitting percentage of 0.053 while tallying 4 of the teams 9 total blocks in the match. Freshman Jada Brown led that effort at the net, with 3 block assists in the game, along with 2 kills. Senior setter Dani Norling got more time than Larkin in the set, and looked just as sharp, adding 8 assists.
For the third set, Coach Duda rested a number of his top performances from the previous two games, and frankly, it showed. The Lady Argo’s team hitting percentage dropped from above 0.300 in the first two sets to 0.222 in the third, while Walla Walla’s went from 0.053 in the second set to 0.270.
That change in offensive efficiency, along with a slew of UP errors cost the Lady Argos the set 25-20.
Having won a set, the Wolves played with a renewed confidence and despite Larkin and others getting back on the floor, the fourth set was a battle.
UP took an early lead and just barely held it through most of the set, but 4 straight WWU points gave the Wolves a 19-18 lead. The Lady Argos rallied back, getting to a 22-19 lead before closing it out 6 points later with a kill from senior Josee Pendleton.
Gonzalez finished the match as the team kills leader with 13 kills on 21 attempts with only 1 attacking error. She also contributed 2 digs, and Dude said he was pleasantly surprised by the junior’s ball control.
“I’m nervous for every first game, but it was really fun. I think this gave me a little more confidence, but I think I can do a lot better,” Gonzalez said. “I think that the team is developing great and I think this was just a glimpse into what we can do this season.”
Other standouts newcomers included Larkin (a team leading 20 assists, 4 digs, and 1 kill), Jada Brown (7 kills, 0 errors, and 4 block assists), and defensive specialist Zuri Meehan (10 digs).
Of the returners, Dani Norling kept pace with Larkin and finished with 18 assists and 4 digs while sophomore defensive specialist Emily Stoker led the team with 11 digs and 1 ace.
Duda played 19 different players in the match which was all of his healthy and eligible players, but that number will quickly shrink with the team traveling to Denver for the Johnson & Whales Tournament where they will take on five different teams including defending national champions (1) Hastings (Neb.).
The tournament will start on August 17, with UP taking on Mayville State University at 4 p.m.