As setter Katie Maher prepared to start her senior volleyball season Saturday, she said rankings were not on her radar — not even the team’s first No. 1 preseason ranking in program history.
“Yeah, we are excited now. We had no idea,” Maher said.
The American Volleyball Coaches Association awarded the reigning national champions the program’s first No. 1 preseason ranking Wednesday; the Tommies received 47 of 48 first-place votes.
While it is “exciting,” middle blocker Paige Brimeyer said a high ranking has more than one outcome.
“Obviously it’s a really big honor, but if anything it adds a lot of pressure,” Brimeyer said.
Pressure coupled with a prominent target, Maher said.
“It makes us excited for the season to start and get back in the gym, but it also puts a huge target on our back,” Maher said. “All the other teams will be out to get us and take down the number one seed, so it’s important that we bring our A-game every game and stay focused.”
The Tommies are returning nine of the top 10 players who took the team on a 35-game winning streak, which broke the record for the longest run in NCAA women’s volleyball, and a 40-1 record in 2012. One of the team’s most notable graduates was defensive specialist Kaiti Wachter.
Maher said returning players who know how to play under high-pressure situations will be key in pushing the Tommies back to a successful playoff run.
“We did lose some good talent, but having the players return who did get experience in those tough matches and playing under that kind of pressure … hopefully they know what to expect so it will take a little bit of the pressure off of them when it comes down to those important matches,” she said.
For Brimeyer, the high returning rate will be an advantage.
“We’re so used to playing with each other. We know what to expect,” Brimeyer said.
St. Benedict is the only other MIAC team with an AVCA preseason ranking, sitting at No. 19. The Tommies defeated the Blazers three times in 2012, going 9-3 in set victories. St. Benedict’s three sets came from two heated playoff games where St. Thomas won 3-2 in the conference playoff finals and won again a week later 3-1 to claim the regional volleyball championship for the third year in a row.
Despite St. Ben’s being some of St. Thomas volleyball’s toughest conference competition in recent seasons, Maher said coach Thanh Pham tells his players not to take the rivalry too seriously.
“It’ll still be a tough match, both teams want it. It’s a big rivalry, but a fun one,” Maher said. “But definitely being ranked above (St. Ben’s) doesn’t give us any more confidence. We still need to come focused and ready to play.”
Brimeyer agreed that the team’s mindset can’t change in a rivalry match-up.
“St. Ben’s is our biggest competition in the MIAC. Rankings don’t matter in that kind of rivalry,” Brimeyer said.
Pham will kick off his 11th season with the Tommies on the first day of practice Saturday and will start his trek toward the 13 wins he needs to reach his 300th when St. Thomas opens its season against Emory University (Ga.) on Aug. 30 in Ohio.
The two day trip to Ohio will be the first three of 11 away games before the Tommies come home for the first time in 2013 to face Macalester on Sept. 18.
Brimeyer said opening the season with road games will be bittersweet.
“Road games are definitely really hard because traveling takes a lot out of you, but traveling is a great way for us to bond as a team. We like road games because we get more time together.”
While many of the players have spent countless hours together on the court, Maher and Brimeyer both said they are looking forward to welcoming the new faces on the first day of practice.
“We’re very excited about our incoming freshman class,” Maher said. “They’ll have a lot of talent and are excited to play just as much as we are. We’re hoping to give them a taste of what we were able to complete last year.”
Briggs LeSavage can be reached at email@example.com.