Volleyball to take part in final non-conference tournament of the season

David Koier, Courier Staff

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The Western Illinois Leatherneck Volleyball team (3-7) travels to Cookeville, TN this weekend to face off in their final tournament where they face non-league opponents. This Friday and Saturday, the Leathernecks face off against host team Tennessee Tech Golden Eagles (2-8), the Southern Illinois Salukis (6-5) and the Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (3-7).

Western head volleyball coach Ben Staupe is very confident in his team’s ability to win this weekend. Staupe told Athletic Communications, “Again, we match up differently with all three of our opponents. If we continue doing what we have been doing, as far as, serving aggressively, continue to stop balls at the net and executing when we need to, we have a great chance with each of these teams.”

Staupe’s comment about stopping balls at the net refers to how strongly the team has been at the net. The Purple and Gold have recorded 66 blocks so far this season, which is 20 more than the 46 that their opponents have. In four of their nine matchups this season, the Leathernecks have out blocked their opponents.

Leading Western’s defensive wall is redshirt junior Mackenzie Steckler. Steckler not only leads her team, but she also tops The Summit League with her 48 total blocks. Steckler also sits atop the Summit with her nine solo blocks.

The Leathernecks have proven that they can keep up with the best when they took Mississippi State of the Southeastern Conference (SEC) to five sets earlier this season. Western recorded their season-high 28 blocks against the Bulldogs with Steckler recording 12 of her own.

While Leatherneck veterans like Steckler have been dominating this season, transfer JoJo Kruize has been leading the Purple and Gold offense with some dominating numbers. Kruize leads the team with 104 kills, 29 more than sophomore Mariah Mitchell who sits at second in 75. Kruize holds a .207 hitting percentage while recording 3.15 kills per set.

Another newcomer who has been key to Western’s success is freshman setter Jessie Connell. Connell has filled the position of recently-graduated Leatherneck Jamie Johnson and has been doing a superb job so far. Connell leads the Leathernecks with 182 assists, but that’s not even her most impressive statistic this season. She also leads the Purple and Gold in service aces, having recorded 17 on the year.

As Coach Staupe noted in his comments, service aces have been key to the Leathernecks’ success in their preseason tournaments. Junior Cassie Hunt has 11 service aces herself.

The Golden Eagles of Tennessee Tech have had their struggles early on this season, coming into the tournament with a 2-8 record. The Golden Eagles’ two wins came against Manhattan and North Alabama. Newcomer Ali Verzani will be the player to watch in this matchup as her offensive efforts have led to her recording 92 kills and 91 digs.

The Leathernecks face off against Tennessee State on Friday at 12 p.m., finishing up the tournament against Southern Illinois and Middle Tennessee on Saturday.

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