Arkansas Volleyball Finding a Groove with Hot Start

Arkansas volleyball head coach Jason Watson once again has the “Ladybacks” off to a stellar start in 2022.

As volleyball continues to take off nationally, the impact has been widely noticed. Taking over in 2016, the one high point in Watson’s early tenure rested in 2017. A 19-11 overall record sprung many into thinking Watson had Arkansas on a fast rise.

Back-to-back seasons under .500 ultimately put a dent in fan perception. Winning 14 SEC games the following season and capturing SEC Coach of the Year honors put any worry back to bed. 

Bouncing back from the SEC-only COVID-19 season, the team had an 11-3 record through 14 games in 2021. As Arkansas wound up in the Women’s NIVC, the feeling of a turning point once again emerged. Losing to the eventual NIVC champion UNLV in three sets, Watson got set for 2022.

Call it destiny or coincidence, but through 14 games this year, the Razorbacks hold a record of 11-3 once more. That record has them knocking on the door of the top 25. For a team with three dominant upperclassmen and balance behind them, it felt like they could handle anything.

Facing arguably their toughest non-conference schedule in some time, it started with a bang.

A Look Back on the Non-Conference

Welcoming a top-10 Washington squad to famous Barnhill Arena to open the season brought fans and students alike to support their Ladybacks. Crowd numbers topped 1,000 for both matches as the ‘One Razorback’ saying was on display.

A team that had not lost more than seven matches in any season since 2019 was a certain test. A two-match series was set and Arkansas took charge. After Arkansas dominated the first set of match one, Washington knew it was in for a battle. From then on, it became a fist fight.

After four sets, the Razorbacks would come out on top thanks to the play of senior Jillian Gillen. A preseason All-SEC selection, she put teams on notice. She is a name we’ll hear as the season continues.

Losing the following match 3-1 had minimal sting. The top-10 victory had put the SEC on notice. Carrying their momentum into the following week, the Ladybacks found themselves in Fort Collins, Colo. to open September.

Against Colorado State, Alabama State, and Florida Gulf Coast, Arkansas dominated with three sweeps in as many days. Not only was it just a dominant showing, but it occurred in front of decent crowds.

Barnhill Arena awaited as the Ladybacks returned home for their own invitational. The only difference between the three-team battles was the setting. Running through UALR, Colorado, and Florida International with the same sweet result propelled Arkansas to 7-1. 

The degree of difficulty would spike once more as ACC foes NC State and ranked Georgia Tech came to town. Much like the last ranked clash, Arkansas jumped out by dominating the first set against the Yellow Jackets.

Taylor Head shined alongside Gillen as they held off Georgia Tech’s return punches. A 3-1 victory would carry into the next match against NC State; the same result was produced.

An 18-point game on 16 kills for senior Maggie Cartwright against the Wolfpack would solidify Arkansas’ monster depth. With such a vibrant start to the season, the Razorbacks tried to carry that momentum into conference play.

Running Into the SEC Wall

A trip to Baton Rouge to face LSU began conference play. In a gritty performance by LSU, Arkansas was pushed to the fifth set. Despite some great performances for the Ladybacks, they would fall short in their SEC opener, 3-2.

A dominant effort from LSU’s Sanaa Dotson proved to be the difference in a match that was statistically similar across the board. Returning to Barnhill in wounded animal mode, Arkansas would cause a below-average Ole Miss team to collapse. In typical fashion thus far, an 11-point drubbing in the first set was followed by a battle for the rest. With one Mississippi school downed 3-1, one more awaited Watson’s team. 

The welcome party presented by Mississippi State wasn’t quite as welcoming as many had hoped. Only the second match this season to take place before noon, it proved detrimental. The Razorbacks would drop the first of two meetings, 3-0. With no Arkansas player achieving double-digit points, it was clear how the result came to be.

The rematch on Oct. 2 turned out to be a thriller. A well-balanced effort produced a 3-2 win. Five players were responsible for at least 12.5 points with Gillen once again proving her preseason SEC status. 

The Slight Look Ahead

Getting back to .500 in conference play was vital as 14 SEC matches remain as Arkansas hopes to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. Both of Arkansas’ next two-match series come at Barnhill Arena. Beginning with Kentucky this weekend, both matches are winnable for the Ladybacks.

A team that is 8-5 to this point, the Wildcats have bolstered their record with a 3-1 SEC mark. Playing six top-25 teams, the Lady Wildcats have had one of the toughest non-conference schedules in all of college volleyball. Facing off against three of the top four teams took its toll.

Following the Kentucky homestand, Arkansas will host Tennessee. Another team tested by facing teams in the top 25, the Lady Volunteers have battled in four of them. While they only took one set out of 13 played, the Vols and Razorbacks do have one common opponent.

Tennessee traveled to play at NC State in early September and rolled the Wolfpack, 3-0. Should Arkansas sweep or split the series with Kentucky, a team that drubbed Arkansas in 2021, the Tennessee series would appear even more winnable.

With students seemingly latching on to volleyball, crowd numbers rising only has beneficial side effects. Not to mention, a ranked team currently doesn’t stand in Arkansas’ path for the rest of the schedule.

The Shining Stars of Arkansas

Through 50 sets played for Gillen, she has kept her status at a star level. As it stands, the senior leads Arkansas in kills with 188. She falls second on the team in service aces, but has made some errors as a server.

Her talent level, however, should allow her to settle in as SEC play truly gets underway. She has earned All-SEC honors every season, so there should be hardly any doubt.

Completing the trio of outside hitters for the Razorbacks are Cartwright and Head. Currently second on the team in kills and kills per set, Head also leads her position group in digs with 138. Her 197 points puts her second in that category as well.

Proving her value in 2021 and in 2020 as SEC Freshman of the Year, she has only built off her success. Cartwright is an experienced senior who has played every set for the Razorbacks this season. Coming in third on the team with 142 kills, she has the highest attack percentage among Ladybacks who have played more than 48 sets. Unlike her outside hitting teammates, she hasn’t been involved in serving, but leads the group in blocks per set.

Great outside hitters need outstanding setters and Arkansas has that luxury. Graduate senior Gracie Ryan has accounted for 234 assists and has played in all 51 sets this season. In all but one match, she has produced at least 10 assists. While not on pace to replicate her record-setting 2021 season, she has been top notch.

Her fellow setter lighting up the stat sheets is sophomore Hannah Hogue. After a freshman season that flashed potential, Hogue has exploded onto the scene in 2022 and currently leads the team in assists. Her 332 assists have come from also playing all 51 sets thus far.

Hogue and Ryan accommodate for 10.9 of Arkansas’ 13.04 assists per set. While neither player ranks near the top of individual categories, they have put Arkansas 11th in the country in assists per set.

Final Verdict

The key to success this season has been a strong start. Winning 12 first sets in 14 matches opens the door for wins to stack up. What has been the downfall of the fast starts has been faltering in the second and third sets. Two of the three losses have come after winning the first set.

While there isn’t a clear answer to the drop-off, it’s something that cannot continue. As with any sport, chemistry will need to continue to develop. Alongside that, service errors must be cut down.

If the dominant starts continue, expect the wins to follow. With an ideal slate ahead, there might even be another SEC Coach of the Year honor awaiting Watson.

Featured image courtesy of Arkansas athletics