Aztecs ready to compete with new head coach, shortened schedule

Then-junior+outside+hitter+Erin+Gillcrist+gets+the+ball+over+the+net+in+the+Aztecs%E2%80%99+3-1+win+over+Air+Force+on+Nov.+14%2C+2019+at+Peterson+Gym.

Sam Mayo

Then-junior outside hitter Erin Gillcrist gets the ball over the net in the Aztecs’ 3-1 win over Air Force on Nov. 14, 2019 at Peterson Gym.

by Breven Honda and Megan Oytas

San Diego State volleyball is finally back to competition since its last match 14 months ago. 

Since then, a lot of moves have happened — from coaching changes to a truncated season beginning this week. 

Despite all the change, first-year head coach Brent Hilliard said the team is ready and can win the Mountain West Conference Championship. 

“I feel like this team has the talent to compete for a conference championship right away,” Hilliard said. “I don’t think they – minus any health issues – are right now stepping into our first week of conference play next week, I think we are good enough to win the conference. That being said, we’ll see what happens.”

Here are three observations for the upcoming season.  

1. Hilliard & Timmons ‘finally’ getting to coach matches

Hilliard was hired on Jan. 31, 2020 and a year later, he still has not coached a game in the Scarlet and Black. 

Assistant coach Steve Timmons was hired two weeks after Hilliard. Both Hilliard and Timmons have prestigious volleyball experience, however this is Timmons’ first coaching gig. 

Despite having a first-year assistant coach and two returning assistant coaches from the prior staff, Hilliard said time was needed for everyone to adjust.

“We have a first time collegiate coach in coach Steve Timmons and then we have two coaches from the previous staff — actually three if you count our volunteer Yasser (Aguila Todd) — so it’s been a different system and a different communication,” Hilliard said. “The staff had to get used to each other, too.  So they’re finally all on the same page and we’re understanding each other.” 

Hilliard said having a year to adjust – especially as a first-year head coach – means the last 12 months have been beneficial. 

“For me, right now to this point means I’m undefeated,” Hilliard said. “I have not had a chance to lose a match yet. So going a year from my start date is pretty fantastic. But, I didn’t think it was going to come about this way. All it’s meant for me is really getting to know the players better. I needed that time because if you want to have a good team, they have to want to play for you and it takes time to build up that type of rapport.”

Senior right-side hitter Erin Gillcrist said the unity from the coaching staff is a big reason for the success in preparation for the season. 

“They’re bringing out the good in everyone, so I’m really excited to see that come to fruition in a game setting,” Gillcrist said. “I feel more excited and more ready than any season so that definitely is a testament to their leadership and the way that they just came in, took us all under their wing, and just, they made the team their own.”

2. SDSU to play 16-game MWC schedule

This season, the Aztecs will play a 16-game conference-only schedule, beginning Feb. 4 at UNLV.  

Twelve of SDSU’s 16 games are against six opponents and will face them on back-to-back days. 

In the final four games of the season, SDSU faces four different teams, including their finale against the reigning MWC Champions Colorado State on April 3 at Peterson Gym.

While playing the same opponent back-to-back days is a change from previous seasons, Gillcrist said it presents some benefits.

“We’re used to getting one try at them at the beginning of the season and then again at the end, and usually you’re a pretty different team by that time,” Gillcrist said. “But I think it definitely is beneficial in that you know you get them the next day so you know you’re really fresh. It’s fresh on your mind, you know the things that you need to change, the things that we can adjust.”

Junior outside hitter Victoria O’Sullivan said the team is grateful to be playing, even if there are teams they would like to face more than once.

“There’s some teams that I would like to play twice honestly, depending on how the game goes when we play them,” O’Sullivan said. “But always getting more games would be nice, but the fact that we get to play them at all is a treat.”

Hilliard said the simplicity of the schedule was the safest decision, and the team has adapted to the idea of not playing any non-conference games.

“I think to have the out-of-conference matches would’ve complicated things and I think this needed to be as simple as possible,” Hilliard said. “So it’s really been very direct and everybody knows what to expect. I think we are adapted to the idea of a shortened season. I mean, yes, we would have liked to play some elite teams to really test ourselves before we went into our conference, sure.”

The first place team in the conference will get an automatic bid into the NCAA tournament.

3. Competition, new players and an injury highlight preparation

Over the last year since Hilliard was hired, competition for positions has taken place on the court. 

The Aztecs have three seniors: defensive specialist/libero Lauren Lee, middle blocker Abby Pugh and Gillcrist. O’Sullivan said the three seniors represent a nucleus with each playing different positions.

“They’re really honestly our core players,” O’Sullivan said. “Lauren being libero, Erin pretty much being our captain, our leader and Abby coming up in the middle. She’s been playing really good in practice. I’m honestly really excited for them to be able to play this season and I really hope they get to do what they want to do in their last couple months as an Aztec.”  

SDSU welcomes three freshmen. Outside hitter Heipua Tautua’a, setter Kennedy Feuerborn and defensive specialist/libero Nadia Barcklay are new arrivals this season. 

“They’re filling expectations that the staff have for them when they arrive,” Hilliard said. “The great surprise of it all is that they’re here and they’re stepping into starting roles and being leaders and adding something that I think the team enjoys. I think it’s a healthy thing to have a mix of new perspectives on the team and that’s what these kids have added.”

Feuerborn is in a different situation with an ACL injury to regular starter and junior setter Camryn Machado. 

Gillcrist said Feuerborn has polished her skills to compete for a starting role since coming to SDSU. 

“We have Kennedy, who’s a new setter, and I’ve seen her blossom so much under our coaches and just the improvement that I’ve seen from the beginning of the season to now has really been amazing,” Gillcrist said.

In addition, SDSU welcomes junior defensive specialist/libero Brooklynn Hill, who transferred from Penn State — a perennial top-10 collegiate volleyball program. 

Gillcrist said Hill has come to SDSU to lead with the experiences of playing in the Big 10 Conference.

“We have Brooklynn from Penn State, she knows all the pressure,” Gillcrist said. “Penn State’s one of the best teams in the country consistently and she’s come in, she’s been a leader, she’s been an awesome voice and I know that under a competitive setting, she’s gonna do amazing.”

In addition to Tautua’a and O’Sullivan at outside hitter, the Aztecs also have junior Maddie Lenn and sophomore Nya Blair. 

Hilliard said it is beneficial to have diverse outside hitters that can not only spike, but can also play back row and defend. 

“We have a nice mix, so our ball control outsides are Maddie Lenn and Heipua and they’re great six rotation players,” Hilliard said. “Then Nya Blair and (O’Sullivan) are these kids that can absorb really heavy loads offensively and can really focus on block and attack.”

Ultimately, Gillcrist said the team’s goal is to get to the Big Dance in April. 

“Our goal is to finally make it to the NCAA tournament,” Gillcrist said. “I love the way Brent talks about it, how much confidence. He’s been there before. That’s his plan for us. So I think that pushes everyone and that gives confidence in ourselves.”

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