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Rutgers Volleyball confident that more progress will be made this season

Head coach Caitlin Schweihofer has transformed the Scarlet Knights from a perennial last place team to one with lofty yet realistic goals.

Rutgers Athletics

When Caitlin Schweihofer was hired last year, no coach that athletic director Pat Hobbs has hired in his six years at Rutgers has inherited a more difficult challenge. The volleyball program had struggled more than any other at Rutgers since the school joined the Big Ten in 2014, compiling a hopeless 3-117 record in conference play.

The former Atlantic 10 coach of the year had proven to be a rising star in the sport, but the task at Rutgers was daunting. The Big Ten is perennially the best conference and routinely has around a half dozen teams ranked in the top ten nationally. Taking over in the midst of a global pandemic was even more of a reason to not expect much progress in her first season on the job.

Instead, Rutgers volleyball became one of the best stories across all sports in the Big Ten last season. They won six conference games, doubling their win total from the previous six seasons combined, as well as produced the most conference victories for the program since 2005. Ending the the season, which was moved to this past spring due to COVID-19, on a four game winning streak that included the first two series sweeps since joining the Big Ten was a clear sign that major progress was taking place. After six consecutive last place finishes, the Scarlet Knights stunned the league with a ninth place finish last season.

Fifth year player Beka Kojadinovic experienced two winless conference campaigns to start her career at Rutgers. She explained why the program has begun to turn things around in such dramatic fashion.

“I think over the past four years, this team has had some really talented players individually, but it wasn’t until this past spring with the new coaching staff that we were able to come together and perform as a cohesive unit,” said Kojadinovic. “The new coaching staff had faith in us from the very beginning and I think this was the biggest difference between last year and years prior. That confidence piece was missing and now it just keeps rising. I think it will have an even bigger impact on this coming season combined with the hard work we have put into it, both individually and as a group.”

In preparing for the new season ahead, Schweihofer said, “It’s really fun to have all of the returning players back. There is a new air of confidence in our practice gym because they know what they accomplished last year. Now they are able to set even higher goals for themselves for this year.”

Rutgers returns all but two players from last season’s team and with the entire starting lineup having returned, the program added six newcomers, including three transfers. With such a short offseason due to the schedule change with COVID, Schweihofer made a key adjustment to the preseason.

“I decided it was best to only do one practice a day,” she said. “That is different from what we would typically do in a preseason when we would have two a day practices. Because we had just played last spring and had all of our players returning with a lot who are in their fourth or fifth year, I didn’t want to overdo it too much and cause injuries. We’ve been practicing once a day for three or four hours in the morning. It’s been good. I think we are pretty close to where we left off last season. I’m excited about the potential for this group.”

The star of the team is senior setter Inna Balyko, who became the first Rutgers player ever to earn First Team All-Big Ten honors last season. She was seventh in the conference with 8.95 assists per game, which moves her into fifth all-time in program history and second in the rally-scoring era.

On Balyko’s accomplishment of making First Team All-Big Ten, Schweihofer said, “It was a great reward for her, but we say all the time that you don’t get individual awards without team success. Inna might have been at that skill level for All-Big Ten in previous years, but if the team isn’t backing you up with wins, you aren’t going to receive those awards. She was honored by it and worked hard to perfect her game. She is a very good setter.”

Aside from continuing to move her name up the record book, Schweihofer expects Balyko to take a step forward in her command of the offense on the court this season.

“We held her hand a little bit last season in how our offense was coordinated. Our assistant Scott (Schweihofer) called a lot of our set plays and now we are hoping with the knowledge she learned from last year, we hope she is able to take charge and put a little bit more on her shoulders without much support from the staff.”

Kojadinovic also made history by setting the program record in serving 10 aces in the last game of the season in a win over Michigan State. It was the most aces by a Big Ten player since 1989 and second most all-time. She also led the team with 2.85 kills per game.

On her historic performance, Kojadinovic said, “It was unbelievable to finish the season in that way. Personally, I can’t say I was expecting to have that many aces in one game but I was just feeling really confident. We had won three games in a row to that point and the coaches gave me a lot of freedom. I wasn’t afraid of making mistakes. I think that was the big thing when I was serving. It was also the first game of the season that I wasn’t jump serving because of an injury, but it was mostly due to the confidence that I was able to have to break that record. I was trying to add a short serve to the mix which also helped a lot. I was really happy that we finished the season in that way.”

She added on how to build from that performance this season, “We are just trying to serve as tough as we can because in this league the service team game is the most crucial piece.”

On what Kojadinovic means to this year’s team, Schweihofer explained, “She has the most experience on the team. This is her fifth year playing in the Big Ten. She’s played in a lot of matches in every season. She is definitely our court captain and the team relies on her in all elements of the game. She is a fun athlete to have on your team. She is very reliable and consistent.”

As to how Schweihofer thinks Kojadinovic can take the next step as a player, she said, “I hope she can improve her blocking because I think her offense is on par with a lot of the opposites in the league who have received all-conference honors. But she needs to improve in the blocking aspects which is what we have really focused on with her during the preseason.”

As for what the focus has been for the team to improve on in year two, Schweihofer explained, “Last year, we had to focus a lot on the technical aspects of the game and how I wanted elements of volleyball skill to look. This year, because we have so many returners, they were able to emphasize those technical elements over the summer to the newcomers. We were able to review things and jump into a lot more strategical aspects of the game. We had some areas we knew we wanted to improve on. Last year, we really focused on our offensive production and we had an increase in that area. This year, we want to maintain offensive production but improve our defensive production with our blocking and our defense. We’ve been focusing on that.”

One newcomer that Schweihofer expects to help in that area is Kansas State graduate transfer Megan Vernon. “She played in the Big XII and she is a really strong blocker,” said Schweihofer. “We wanted to improve with that. That’s her strength and is able to showcase that skill and help train our blockers to improve in that area. Really a kind quality human being and I’ve very much enjoyed having her here.”

As for the other newcomers and what they add, Schweihofer said, “We’ve added in some elements that we didn’t have a lot of depth in. Now we have Alissa Kinkela, a freshman who is a 6’4” outside hitter. That will take some pressure off of Kamila (Cieslik) and Max (Anastasiia Maksimova).” She continued, “Sam Graver played for me at LaSalle so she knows what my style is, what my expectations are. We are going to use her primarily in a defensive role. She’ll push Madyson Chitty after not having much of a competitive challenge on the team last season but she now does. Vernon now gives us a third middle option in case someone gets injured. We are now a little more comfortable in not trying to keep them all in a bubble all the time.”

Another key transfer is Rachel Tam, who played for Virginia Tech the previous two years. “She is from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. It’s really important to me to have some homegrown talent on the team and to help our grassroots marketing,” stated Schweihofer. “Coming to watch players that you know. It’s really fun to have her here. She has trained at a high level and has experience in the ACC, so she is a quality transfer for us in her position.”

On the impact the newcomers have made in the preseason, Kojadinovic explained, “I feel like all of the new players have bought into what we are trying to do and how we are trying to completely change this program. They really work hard and be a part of this change with us. I feel like they are all going to make an impact this season and beyond.”

After being a bit shorthanded with personnel last season, Schweihofer is pleased with the size of the roster entering the fall. “I think 16 is a good number. We had 12 last year, which was a small roster. They were the foundation for what the future of what Rutgers volleyball is. They will always hold a special place, not only within each other’s eyes but with my coaching career. They were a good group.”

In order to continue an upward climb in the Big Ten, recruiting is a major priority. Schweihofer saw the positive impact that last season has had when she was on the road this past summer.

“It’s been remarkable to say the least,” she said. “When I went out recruiting this summer, people I’ve never met before were coming up to me saying ‘We saw your game against Maryland on BTN.’ That opens up so many doors for us. There are so many eyes that watch volleyball on BTN.”

Rutgers will play three matches live on the Big Ten Network this season, the most in program history. This includes the first home match broadcast live which was made possible by playing at the RAC this fall. The Scarlet Knights will play its first nine home contests at the RAC before finishing out the slate with four games at the Barn on College Avenue, where they have played previously.

“Playing at the RAC is such an amazing opportunity,” said Schweihofer. “I’m so grateful to Pat Hobbs and Kate Hickey, our athletic administration, for making this happen for us. It’s truly the next step in our rise. We need to showcase that venue as a volleyball friendly venue. It allows us to play on BTN. We will have our first ever live BTN broadcast this season against N.C. State. To build a brand for Rutgers, we need as many eyes upon us. The RAC gives us more opportunity to put people in the seats. Really thrilled.”

Kojadinovic added, “We can’t even explain how excited we are. To play in the RAC is huge for us because we know the athletic department is behind this program 100% percent and they want us to succeed. Moving to the RAC is just one more step towards that. Everyone is on the same page with this program and it will allow us to continue to move in the right direction.”

As for how the revitalized brand has resonated on the recruiting trail, the success experienced last season has elevated the program’s profile with recruits.

“From a recruiting perspective, a ninth place finish in the Big Ten put a lot of proof in the process,” said Schweihofer. “I’m very grateful to our 2022 commit. She committed to us before we even played a match. She saw my vision and she committed to a team that was in last place in the Big Ten. Now we’ve had a very successful 2023 recruiting cycle so far. We have three top 50 recruits that recently committed. They are now committing to a ninth place team in the Big Ten. Same vision, same process but we are further along. We showed what we can do as a coaching staff and as a team that has given a little more comfort in joining a team that is rebuilding.” (Editor’s note: Coaches can’t comment on specific recruits until they officially sign their letters of intent.)

A major difference this season is having a non-conference schedule after playing a Big Ten only slate in the spring. It is Schweihofer’s first opportunity to build the non-conference schedule at Rutgers and it includes 11 games spread across four tournaments. The Scarlet Knights open the 2021 season this weekend at the FGCU Invitational where they’ll play the host, as well as USF and UMBC on Friday and Saturday.

On her approach to the non-conference schedule, Schweihofer proved her attention to detail involves every aspect of the program.

“When we look at our non-conference slate, we obviously want to play matches that prepare us to play in the toughest league in the country,” Schweihofer explained. “We also want to make sure that we schedule enough matches that we feel we can be successful in, so that we are able to maintain a plus .500 record that puts us in contention for an NCAA Tournament bid. That’s important. We pick teams by looking at how RPI can be managed. We try to play teams who are in power five and other tough leagues. Teams that are mid-majors but winning their league, which benefits us.”

Taking the players into account is part of the scheduling process as well. “A major goal of mine is whenever we recruit anyone, we want to play in front of their home crowd at least once in their career,” said Schweihofer. “That’s why Clemson is on the slate because Lauren Delo is from (right) there (Anderson, South Carolina). You’ll see that pop up year after year in trying to pick a non-conference tournament in a hometown of one of our players.”

As for what steps the program can make this season after the major progress that was made in the spring, Kojadinovic was not afraid to ramp up expectations.

“It feels amazing. I never would have thought we would have gotten to this point of starting this huge change with the entire program,” said Kojadinovic. “Now our goals have shifted completely and we set them really high. Our goal for this season is to make the NCAA Tournament. I think it’s very achievable if we keep building on the things that we did last spring. Personally, I don’t want us to be the underdogs in every single game anymore. I want to see this team be more dominant than ever.”

Confidence has been a big part of the change within the program. Believing they are good enough to win in the Big Ten is no easy task based on the team’s past history but the mindset of the players is changing for the better.

“I think our confidence has definitely grown,” Schweihofer said. “We are able to walk into most matches not hoping for a win or hoping the other team plays poorly. We are able to recognize that if we can take control of how we play, we have the ability to win on our own merit.”

“I think winning as many games as we did last season definitely helped because we can see that it is very possible to not be the underdog anymore and perform better than other teams,” stated Kojadinovic. “Even some games that we lost, we were still trying our best and actually there with the other team. The gap wasn’t so big. I feel like the team feels more confident now. I think coming into this season, we don’t have this mentality anymore. I want to see the entire team go to the court and believe we are going to win every single game even though it might not be possible at every point. I feel like we are all on the same page.”

While Rutgers hopes to improve on its ninth place finish last season, they were picked to finish 11th in the Big Ten preseason coaches poll. Schweihofer has pointed out to her team that progress should be measured over time and doesn’t always show up in an obvious way.

“I do talk to them a lot about success isn’t always linear. You aren’t necessarily going to go from ninth to eighth to seventh place,” she explained. “Even a tenth or eleventh place finish this year is still multiple places ahead of where they were two years ago.

As for the challenges they will face now in the second year of the rebuild, Schweihofer explained, “Teams are going to take us much more seriously now. I think they will have a high level of expectation for what our competitive level is. That’s always challenging in year two for a team to recognize that. I think having our starting lineup back helps us with that.”

Having that experience back gives Rutgers an opportunity to take that next step despite new challenges that come along this fall.

“We are going to approach every match the same way we did last year,” said Schweihofer. “We’ll go into every match with a game plan. We’ll have solid goals. Sometimes it won’t equate to winning that match, but it will equate to if we do this and its an improvement on what we’ve done before. We’ll see where things lie at the end of the season. Really excited to get to play in the Big Ten.”

In regard to how Schweihofer will measure success and progress this season, her approach is methodical and realistic.

“First and foremost, we want to get the wins where we did last year. Play against the teams we were already successful against in year one and whether we split with them, try to get a split again at least or sweep them,” Schweihofer said. “If we already swept them, let’s try to beat them in three sets instead of four or five. Win one more set faster. When it comes to teams that we didn’t get to play like the seventh or eighth teams in the league in Michigan and Illinois, we don’t know how we would have done. We have those games circled on our calendar because we want to see what we can showcase against them.”

Winning games against teams that Rutgers has proven they can beat while also defeating teams they now feel they are on par or even better than is a crucial step towards improving this season. However, expecting to beat one of the top six programs in the Big Ten is a different story altogether.

“Obviously playing against the top six who are ranked in the top ten (nationally), we want to continue to go out there and put on a better performance than we did the year before. That might mean taking two sets from Nebraska instead of one. Approaching each game with the mindset that this is a building process and that it doesn’t happen overnight.”

Before Schweihofer’s arrival, the Rutgers volleyball team was buried in the Big Ten basement. In year two of her tenure, expectations are the highest they’ve ever been. While it’s too early to expect the Scarlet Knights to make the NCAA Tournament, the direction that the program appears headed no longer means its a pipedream either. There is a clear plan in place and based on last season’s results, it’s hard to imagine that more progress won’t occur this fall. How much of a step forward Rutgers actually makes and how it equates to success with wins and losses remains to be seen. The fact that the question is even a realistic one to ponder proves this program is already experiencing better days with many more ahead.