Fresno State had trudged through years of medocrity on the volleyball court before finally finding itself amid one of the best starts in program history.
But the Bulldogs say they won’t let a 9-2 record or any team and individual superlatives affect their performance.
So forget any risk of overconfidence stemming from a three-match winning streak or despair over surrendering an eight-point lead in a set in last week’s match against UC Irvine.
86 Service aces for Fresno State, which ranks among the NCAA’s top 15 in the category
The Anteaters, fueled by the serving of Harlee Kekauoha that included three aces, rebounded from a 20-12 deficit to take the second set. But the Bulldogs bounced back for a 25-21, 21-25, 25-23, 25-21 victory at Save Mart Center to extend their winning streak to four ahead of Thursday’s Mountain West Conference opener at seven-time defending champ Colorado State.
This year’s team is only the sixth in program history to start 9-2 or better. Since the Bulldogs’ last 20-win season in 2003, there have been five times when Fresno State won eight or fewer matches for an entire year.
When they get on the floor they like playing good volleyball. They’re not satisfied with just being OK.
Bulldogs coach Lauren Netherby-Sewell on this year’s team, off to one of the better starts in program history
Outside hitter Aleisha Coates had a match-high 22 kills and three aces. Libero Maggie Eppright, who was the reigning conference conference Defensive Player of the Week, added 14 digs.
“We could’ve easily come out and just been defeated and deflated – (Kekauoha) has a mean serve. She could go on a 10-point run any game – but the second we started recognizing it, we let that go,” Eppright said.
The senior captains are just two of the pieces that make up a deep roster that also has roots in the San Joaquin Valley in Jacqueline Hutcheson (Exeter), Taylor Slover (Tulare), Lauren Torres (El Diamante), Brielle Hefner (Madera) and Madelyn Halteman (Pitman-Turlock). Coates is from Victorville and Eppright from San Luis Obispo.
With the depth came more personalities and a new team dynamic, a “big change” from a year ago, Coates said.
The Bulldogs are the sixth team in program history to start 9-2 or better.
To get to know one another and grow together, the Bulldogs spent a team-building weekend in August in Wonder Valley. Activities included the leap of faith, zip-lining and rope courses.
“We bond so much better now,” said Coates, who also spent part of her summer with a Mountain West All-Star team on a 12-day European tour. “Our biggest thing is to just be in the present, in the moment. That’s kinda our team’s philosophy. We take it one ball at a time because the next one is coming and it’s not going to be the same exact thing.”
For Eppright – the team’s only four-year starter – that’s another huge difference from seasons past.
“We’ve got rid of the emotional lows by just focusing on staying present, in each week, each match and each point, and just keep the focus on now rather than looking back or forward,” Eppright said. “We can’t change what happened, but we can learn from it.
“And I think our ability to learn from those mistakes is what has helped us win.”
The Bulldogs are multidimensional, but have been particularly dangerous on the serve. They have 86 aces, or 2.21 per set to rank third nationally through Monday.
I like where we’re at heading into conference. It’s a stacked conference from top to bottom. It’s going to be a battle every weekend, but I like the depth that we have.
Netherby-Sewell on the start of the Mountain West portion of the Bulldogs’ schedule
Hutcheson leads with 21 and her .54 per set ranks 12th nationally, while Coates has 20. Fresno State will put its 7-0 road record to the test against the Rams (6-5).
Again, all just numbers for what players and coaches say is a reborn Bulldogs side.
“It’s a very mellow team. They don’t like to get too amped up or too low,” ninth-year coach Lauren Netherby-Sewell said. “I kinda like that they’re steady.”
Added Eppright: “I think this team in particular, having the spring under them and the confidence under them, I think we know what we’re capable of.”
FRESNO STATE AT COLORADO STATE
- Thursday: 6 p.m. at Moby Arena in Fort Collins
- Records: Bulldogs 9-2, Rams 6-5
- Webcast: Mountain West Network (themwc.com)
- Of note: Colorado State is the Mountain West’s seven-time defending champ and a narrow choice, over Boise State, to repeat in 2016. Rams have won 13 of 17 regular-season MW titles and 60 of their past 62 conference matches.
2016 Bulldogs schedule
BOSTON COLLEGE INVITATIONAL
- Aug. 26 vs. LIU Brooklyn W, 3-2
- Aug. 27 at Boston College W, 3-0
- Aug. 28 at Hartford W, 3-0
- Aug. 29 at New Hampshire W, 3-0
- Sept. 2 vs. Portland State W, 3-2
- Sept. 2 vs. DePaul L, 1-3
- Sept. 3 vs. Portland L, 0-3
INCARNATE WORD CARDINAL CLASSIC
- Sept. 9 vs. Texas Southern W, 3-0
- Sept. 10 vs. Prairie View A&M W, 3-0
- Sept. 10 at Incarnate Word W, 3-0
REST OF SEASON
- Sept. 12 vs. Fresno Pacific (exhibition) W, 3-0
- Sept. 15 vs. UC Irvine, W, 3-1
- Sept. 22 at Colorado State* 6 p.m.
- Sept. 24 at Wyoming* 12 p.m.
- Sept. 29 vs. UNLV* 7 p.m.
- Oct. 1 vs. New Mexico* 1 p.m.
- Oct. 6 at San Diego State* 6 p.m.
- Oct. 8 at Nevada* 1 p.m.
- Oct. 13 vs. Air Force* 7 p.m.
- Oct. 15 vs. Boise State*# 1 p.m.
- Oct. 20 vs. Wyoming* 7 p.m.
- Oct. 22 vs. Colorado State* 1 p.m.
- Oct. 27 at New Mexico* 5:30 p.m.
- Oct. 29 at UNLV* 3 p.m.
- Nov. 3 vs. Nevada* 7 p.m.
- Nov. 5 vs. San Diego State* 1 p.m.
- Nov. 10 at Boise State* 6:30 p.m.
- Nov. 12 at Air Force* 1 p.m.
- Nov. 16 vs. Utah State* 7 p.m.
- Nov. 22 at San Jose State* 6 p.m.
*-Mountain West Conference opponent
#-at Clovis North High School