In case you missed it, your #9 ranked Boilermakers opened their season in the annual Mortar Board Tournament in Holloway Gymnasium. And what an opening it was! As Juan recounted, they swept the University of Northern Iowa in a hard fought three sets. From there, the weekend just got better and the team more dominant.
George Washington was the fourth best team in this four team tournament, and both teams knew how the match would end before it even started. Purdue chose to rest Ariel Turner for the duration of the match, opting instead to start freshman outside hitter, Sam Epenesa. To her credit, Sam played very well, leading the team with 8 kills over the course of the match. The real entertainment of this match came from seeing what some of our new players are going to contribute over the course of the season as they improve.
In addition to Sam, the other freshman who got some playing time was Annie Drews from Penn High School...and she's kind of terrifying. Which I obviously mean in the best way possible. Throughout the preseason, we've heard Coach Shondell talk about Annie and how much she just loves to hit. We now know why she loves to hit: she's really good at it. I think it's possible she hits the ball harder than anyone I've seen which is a darn good reason for her 5 kills with a .714 hitting percentage. At the very least she's neck and neck with Anna Drewry for hardest hitter on the team. Another thing that AnnIE and AnnA have in common is that they're both 6'4" and adept at using that size to get blocks. Drews looks like a player who is going to be contributing for the next four years.
The match also showcased improvements for two of Purdue's upcoming stars, Val Nichol and Kiki Jones. This game was more or less a testament to why the Val Nichol setting project is so appealing as she finished with 17 sets in addition to 5 kills on .500 hitting. Kiki showed off some new hitting techniques going more side to side a la Tiffany Fisher from last year. With experience, Kiki will refine this technique. With her defensive presence, once she becomes a force on offense, the Big Ten will have to be on notice. Oh yeah, and we won the match going away. 25-12 in the first, 25-12 in the second, and 25-16 in the third.
If the George Washington match was a testament as to why the Val Nichol setting project will work, then the Pitt match is a reminder that it's still a work in progress. To her credit, Val finished with 16 sets, but you can tell that she's still learning some of the subtleties and tricks to it. The touch on her sets led to a couple of service errors that I can remember off the top of my head, and unlike other setters who have a true understanding of the position, she's not comfortable with the surprise attacks that a defense can leave open when accounting for players like Ariel Turner. Please don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Val shouldn't ever play setter, or that she'll never grow into it, but right now it's obvious that the offense is a much smoother machine with Rachel Davis (and her 23 sets) in, so this is something to watch develop as Big Ten season approaches. Val was still one of the best players on the court all weekend no matter who was out there though and she was recognized for her truly outstanding play with a spot on the All-Tourney team.
On a slightly more optimistic note, Ariel Turner is still really, really good. She led the team with 14 kills on a .538 percentage with no hitting errors. She also chipped in 5 digs for good measure, and she, too, was good enough to make the All-Tournament team. More good news is that Anna Drewry, to me, looked very good in this match. She had 5 blocks and 9 kills while hitting .500, and it looked like her old injuries are a thing of the past.
On a MUCH more optimistic note, Amanda Miller looks like a brand new player. She won the Tournament MVP behind her much improved defense and serving, and she's emerging as one of the feel good stories for this team. This year she's ditched the safety helmet, and she's shown a much greater range and consistency than she displayed last year when she still looked a little hesitant. Combined with Carly Cramer's still spectacular defense as the libero, Amanda is making the back row look much more like a strength than it was appearing before the season began.
Regarding the specifics of the match itself, it was a tale of 3 sets. The first set was semi-competitive with Purdue jumping out to a quick 10-3 lead behind a combination of kills from Ariel Turner, Kiki Jones, and errors from Pitt. Pitt traded points with us back and forth, eventually evening out at a six point lead. Once it got to 14-6 though, Purdue ripped off 6-2 run to put the final outcome out of jeopardy. Pitt showed some fight and offered a preview of things to come, out-hitting Purdue 8-5 over the last minutes of the set.
The second set was a battle from start to finish. Pitt came out strong, and neither team could grab the advantage with Purdue leading 6-3 and Pitt battling back to go up 8 to 12. The teams traded points back and forth tying a total of 9 different times throughout the set. Down 23-22, Val Nichol and Anna Drewry blocked a Pitt attack to tie it at 23-23, and the next point Anna Drewry hit one of the hardest shots I can honestly remember seeing. It was almost one of those hits that if you blinked, you missed it, and there was no doubt after that that Purdue was winning the next point, the set, and the match.
Put simply, the third set was vaguely reminiscent of the Purdue-Northern Illinois basketball game from last year. Purdue jumped out to an 11-0 lead and never looked back. After giving up their first point, Purdue promptly scored 4 more in a row to make it 15-1 and at this point it was just kind of embarrassing. At about this point, the freshman started coming back in and Sam Epenesa brought the day full circle finishing the game at 25-6.