Young Jackrabbits optimistic under Cirillo’s command

The South Dakota State volleyball team will utilize a mix of youth and experience to improve on last season, at a 5-23 record. 

With eight freshmen on the roster, there will be plenty of new faces for the Jackrabbits. In total, there are nine new players on the team. 

“I think they have all kind of surprised me, really, each of them has something different,” Head Coach Nicole Cirillo said. “They came in ready to go and that’s the hardest thing to find as a freshman, to be able to play at a high level. They all came in with good conditioning and we didn’t have to focus on that piece of our game.” 

Cirillo said one of the freshmen will start at the middle back position, but did not say which one. 

She views having so much youth on the roster as a good way to get rid of the “funk” the program has been in as of late. 

“With youth comes kind of an ignorance of the past few years the program has had,” Cirillo said. 

Despite having many new faces, there are still key players returning for the Jacks. One of those key players is sophomore outside hitter Makenzie Hennen. 

Hennen was second on the team in kills last year with 228 and was also named to the Summit League All-Freshman team.

Senior libero Ellie Benson led the Jacks last year with 459 digs and an average of 4.54 digs per set. Benson is the lone senior on this year’s team.

However, Benson doesn’t see her status as the Jacks’ only senior as added pressure. 

“I’m super excited about this team with the new girls and a new sense of optimism and energy,” Benson said. 

Another key returner will be sophomore outside hitter Ashlynn Smith, who was selected to the 2016 Summit League All-Freshman team. Smith was second in hitting percentage for the Jacks last season and started in all 28 matches. 

Junior setter Mattison Munger will also be returning this year. Munger had 845 assists last year, moving her career total to 1,526. She needs 162 assists to position herself into 10th on the school’s career assist list. 

Outside hitter Sierra Peterson led the team with 59 total blocks and 53 block assists in her sophomore season, despite suffering an injury and appearing in only 28 sets.

Cirillo said having a variety of youth and experience can work for SDSU because the older players have already started to take some of the younger players under their wings. 

“The older players help guide the younger players and show them what are the expectations and what troubles we have had in the past,” Cirillo said. 

The Jacks were picked seventh out of eight teams in the Summit League preseason poll. The Denver Pioneers were the top selection for the fourth consecutive year.     

SDSU has a chance to reach 900 wins as a program this season. They will need to win six games, one more than they won last year. 

“I don’t want to jinx it but I think with the talent and the depth we are going to meet (the goal) without a problem, it’s just when and how we get there,” Cirillo said. 

A big focal point for the Jacks in the off-season was improving their serve receive. Last year, they had the most reception errors in Summit League play. Most of the serve receive players are returning and during the spring the coaching staff helped returning players with breaking down its film and repetitions. 

“Just a lot of breakdowns and a lot of reps and getting them confident in what they are doing and just going with it,” Cirillo said. 

The Jacks will open their season against the Wisconsin-Milwaukee Panthers at the Panther Invitational Aug. 25, in Milwaukee. It will be the 12th time in program history the Jackrabbits will begin their season at an away tournament. 

“We are looking forward to building this program and having a winning season,” Benson said. 

The Jacks will host the first Hampton Inn Jackrabbit Tournament Sept. 1, which will serve as the home opener for the Jackrabbits. California State Bakersfield, Valparaiso and Northern Arizona will also be in the tournament. 

“How we handle some of the adversity that’s going to happen, whether it’s winning or injuries, our response has to be the things that we have worked so hard on the past two years,” Cirillo said. “If we do those things the wins are going to come.”