Through the first six years that Rutgers competed in the Big Ten, no athletic program struggled more than the women’s volleyball team. After compiling a conference record of just 3-117 over six seasons, athletic director Pat Hobbs hired Caitlin Schweihofer to take on arguably the toughest task that any program faced on the banks.
The Big Ten is traditionally a powerhouse in women’s volleyball and this past season was no exception, as there are currently six teams ranked in the top 11 nationally ahead of the NCAA Tournament. With no practice facility, the volleyball team practices and plays games at the old College Avenue Gym, which is typically a shared space on campus open to the public. And to top it off, Schweihofer was tasked with laying the foundation for the program during a global pandemic. With only five returning players, she was tasked with rebuilding the roster despite being hired just two months before COVID-19 changed everything. Ultimately, Schweihofer assembled a roster of 12 players, well below the typical size of a Big Ten team.
With the season supposed to open last fall, it wasn’t until late January that a league only schedule actually began. Not having a non-conference schedule to build team chemistry and improve on the court before the Big Ten gauntlet began was another major obstacle to overcome. However, there were signs throughout the season that progress was occurring, despite the history and challenges this team faced.
Rutgers defeated Indiana for the first time since joining the Big Ten in Schweihofer’s home debut. A couple weeks later, the Scarlet Knights won a set in a 3-1 loss to no. 4 Nebraska. Two weeks after that, they earned a five set victory on the road at Iowa.
The team kept improving and building confidence throughout the season, despite persevering through a six match losing streak and staying isolated due to COVID-19 protocols. RU lost a hard fought match 3-2 against no. 10 Ohio State and later in the season, the Scarlet Knights won a set before falling to no. 8 Purdue.
Despite being more competitive against the best teams in the Big Ten, Rutgers remained at the bottom of the standings with a 2-14 record as the final stretch of the season arrived. However, Schweihofer had the team focused and what resulted was the best stretch of play the program has produced in many years.
Rutgers finished the season on a four game winning streak, defeating Maryland 3-1 twice before winning in East Lansing 3-2 and 3-1 against Michigan State. The sweep over the Terps was the first for the program since joining the Big Ten and they proceeded to do it again the following weekend. Schweihofer’s team won more Big Ten games over a two week period than the program had won over the previous six seasons combined.
“It’s unreal the amount of firsts and things we crossed off our list of what we wanted to accomplish this season.” said Schweihofer. “I’ve talked about how we achieve what we want to achieve, but doing it in a way that was reasonable and attainable. It was not ‘hey, let’s go get six wins’, but more ‘Let’s get a Player of the Week’, ‘Let’s go get a win for Michigan State who we’ve never beaten’ and ‘Let’s try to get a set from Nebraska’. It was just such a buy in from this group on those little steps. They’re big steps but from the little stuff that just equates to what our record ended up being. I’m just so proud of them.”
Schweihofer came to Rutgers having experience with rebuilding a program and it showed. She took over LaSalle in 2014 a year removed from the Explorers going 1-31, leading them to a 10-20 record in her first year on the job. She ultimately was named the Atlantic 10 coach of the year in 2018 after leading LaSalle to its best season in program history. After one winning season at Northeastern, Schweihofer came to Rutgers to turn things around and her inaugural team has made its mark in the program’s record books.
The tremendous close to the season led to another first for the program. With a 6-14 final record in Big Ten play, the most conference wins since 2005, Rutgers finished in ninth place out of fourteen teams. It marked the first time RU didn’t finish in last place since joining the league after earning the most Big Ten wins in one season, tripling the previous best of two victories in 2019. They doubled its Big Ten win total this season from the previous six seasons combined. While there is plenty of room for improvement in the future, the progress made this past season was nothing short of remarkable based on the past.
Most notably, this squad established an all-time best of 1.51 aces per set average. The win over Michigan State to end the season saw Rutgers set a program record with 17 aces in a single match. Senior Beka Kojadinovic set a program record while serving the second most aces (10) in Big Ten history in a single contest in the win over MSU, which was the most in a conference match since 1989.
Rutgers also finished second all-time for the season with an .190 attack percentage. They were also sixth all-time with kills per set at 11.46, as well as eighth in assists (10.42), digs (12.64) and blocks (12.64) per set.
Veterans along with Kojadinovic who led this team’s significant improvement on the court included Kamilia Cieslik, Shealyn McNamara, Anastasiia Maksimova, and Inna Balyko. Freshmen who shined this past season included Madyson Chitty and Tina Grkovic.
”We’ve just defeated all odds. We stayed COVID free for an entire season,” said Schweihofer. “We had no shutdowns. First and foremost, the health of the student-athlete was at the top of our list and we were able to achieve that. Then nobody expected this team to win six matches, let alone one match, with only 12 players. We really embraced the whole ‘expect to win’. That’s the mindset we went into every match, no matter who we were playing. Our mindset was expect to win and sometimes it worked out for us and sometimes it didn’t. This team has totally bought into my vision for the program. We’re making a lot of noise and I’m so excited for the future the program.”
The Scarlet Knights will look to build on this past season’s success and with a proven builder like head coach Caitlin Schweihofer leading the way, the future looks bright for Rutgers.