ASHLAND, Ohio – From the first serve of the season, AU first-year volleyball coach Cass Dixon has preached progress and consistency. So far, she has to be pleased with her squad in both those areas.
Ashland enters this weekend with a 9-3 record and a 7-1 mark in the GLIAC. The Eagles are in second place in the GLIAC South, having won five matches in a row and seven of their last eight.
"We've been getting in the gym and not being satisfied with just winning," said Dixon. "Even though we're winning, we're not just taking the back seat, saying, 'we're going to win.' We need to keep pushing every day."
This weekend, the Eagles welcome three schools from the GLIAC North to Kates Gymnasium in what should be a pivotal three-match set.
On Friday, Grand Valley State comes in for a 7 p.m. match. The first 200 AU students in attendance will receive an AU rally towel and water bottle.
GLIAC North leader Ferris State, which is ranked 11th nationally, visits on Saturday at 2 p.m. On Sunday, the Eagles welcome Saginaw Valley State, which is third in the North Division. The Eagles are also encouraging fans to wear pink this weekend in support and awareness of breast cancer. Donations will be accepted and donated to the Ashland County Cancer Society.
"Between this weekend and next weekend, it's the hump of our season," said junior setter Crystal Elliott (Canal Winchester, Ohio). "If we do what we need to do, we will be in the right place for the postseason."
Following this home gauntlet, the Eagles are on the road for four weeks, starting with a three-match weekend at the GLIAC-GLVC Crossover in Aurora, Ill. Oct. 15-16.
"When I saw it I thought it was going to be a tough weekend, because they are three really strong opponents," Dixon said. "But as the season has played out, it's become more important as each week has gone by."
AU currently sits third in the 16-team GLIAC. A season ago, the Eagles finished eighth and their season ended in the first round of the GLIAC Tournament. This season, the Eagles have dreams greater than that and want to get a bigger taste of the postseason.
"We see the season not ending until December," Elliott said. "We see ourselves going farther than we've ever gone before. If we do what we know we can do, then our season will keep going."
That will all start with Friday's match against Grand Valley State, which has been a perennial power in the GLIAC and the Midwest Region.
"I would love to come out of the weekend 3-0, but I think Friday night is going to be the determining factor," said Dixon, who noted the strength of all three teams coming to Kates Gymnasium in the coming days. "If we can pull out a win against Grand Valley, that'd be great, but I want to play well and I want the team to compete. If we compete, hopefully the wins will come."
A lot of that competition will start with the Eagles to get the ball Elliott. She is fifth in the GLIAC with 9.68 assists per set and has 426 for the season. Elliott is fourth on AU's all-time assists list with 2,710 in her career.
The Eagles have five players averaging more than 1.6 kills per set, led by junior outside hitter Brittany Snider (Olmsted Falls, Ohio), who has 2.81 kills per set.
That offensive distribution is not happening by accident. Dixon said the players have been working well in a system that does not rely on one or two players to provide all the offense.
"That's been my focus all along, and we've been able to get that across to the team," she said. "It makes us well-rounded and will allow us to be more successful in the long run."
Said Elliott: "It's really cool. You don't just rely on one person. You can give the ball to anyone and they can do their job and get it done. There's no leaning on one person. We even have people on the bench that can come in and do the same exact thing."
Even Elliott has been actively involved in putting down kills at just under one kill per set this season. She already has a career-high 40 kills this season out of the setter position.
"I've always loved to attack, but I just didn't know how to utilize it before," said Elliott. "The coaches show a lot of confidence in me doing it. It keeps the other team on their toes and it gets our side excited too."
Dixon has also stressed the importance of keeping everyone involved, especially the middle blockers, who have played a huge role in the Eagles' success this season. Dixon has employed four different players in the middle this season and has rotated them in and out of the lineup with no decrease in production.
"We know that when she does make a change between the middles we understand it's for the better of the team," said sophomore middle blocker Susie Jonas (Harrison, Ohio), who has put down 1.82 kills per set and is the team leader with 23 total blocks.
It has helped to have a setter that is aware of the other players on the court and also reading the block on the opposite side of the net.
"Crystal is a huge leader on the court this year. She's connecting with us and she's trying to make us available for our hits," Jonas said.
Another part of the Eagles' winning run of late has been the play of its defense, both at the net and on the back row. The Eagles have allowed opponents to hit just .135 during their five-match winning streak.
"Our front row is working directly with our back row," said Dixon. "Our back row is being patient allowing the block to develop. They are playing around them instead of just playing behind them."
The back row is led by senior libero Arian Martin (Independence, Ohio), who has 185 digs. She ranks second all-time on AU's digs list with 1,527 and she has never missed a set in her four years at Ashland.
"Arian is that quiet worker that just does her job, day in and day out. She never gets super excited but she definitely stresses the hard work aspect," said Dixon.
The Eagles have also gotten huge production and experienced leadership from senior outside hitter Anesia Benton (Lima, Ohio/Lima Senior). She is third on the team with 89 kills and is hitting at a .237 clip.
"Anesia is the fire, she's very passionate about this game. The hard work from Arian and the passion from Anesia – the combination of the two really epitomize the team. We work hard and we get excited about it," said Dixon.
The Eagles will have their work cut out for them this weekend, but with one advantage that none of the teams coming in will have – the Eagles will have the home-court advantage and home-crowd support.
"To know that the fans are into it, it really makes the atmosphere powerful and gets us in the game even more," said Elliott. "We're excited they're cheering for us, it helps our mentality. If we lose one point, it's ok, everyone is there supporting us."
The action starts Friday night (Oct. 7) at Kates Gymnasium with Grand Valley State coming in as the visitor. The first 200 AU students in attendance will receive a rally towel and water bottle. First serve is scheduled to go up at 7 p.m.