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Rutgers Volleyball looks to move up in Big Ten this season



Photo credit Rutgers Athletics

On Wednesday, Rutgers volleyball took part in Big Ten Media Day at the BTN studios in Chicago. Head coach Caitlin Schweihoefer, redshirt sophomore Alissa Kinkella and sophomore Taylor Humphrey represented the program.

Entering Schweihofer’s fourth season at RU, the program continues to add new talent to the roster. After adding eight newcomers before last season, Rutgers welcomes five freshmen and a transfer to the roster for this season.

“We are a team that has spent a lot of time in the off-season developing the core that is returning from last season, building upon that experience and what we are setting as our non-negotiables, our team standards, and making sure when anyone comes into this program, they’re aware of them,” explained Schweihofer. “And that allows for the transition whenever we add new faces, which we’ll do every year. Every year in the program we will add new people. It’s really important to make sure that those core values are established and set and that the team is really aligned with what the vision is for not only this year but the program moving forward over the next several years.”

Humphrey was a newcomer herself last season and excelled as a true freshman. She was second on the team with 259 kills and 2.54 kills per set while also producing 184 digs at 1.80 per set.

“When newcomers come in or freshmen or transfers, I think we’re very quick to introduce them to the culture that we want, and we’re very steadfast in knowing like what that culture is,” stated Humphrey. “When we have a foundation of friendship behind the scenes, it makes on-court tough conversations — asking a teammate to give more effort, holding each other accountable, things like that — it makes those a lot easier when you know off the court that you can have fun and it can be a good time, but on the court it’s business and we’re here to win games.”

Progress has been hard to come by for Rutgers in regard to wins and losses. After Schweihofer made a stunning debut during the 2020-2021 Covid shortened season, leading Rutgers to a program best 6 Big Ten wins, the past two seasons have resulted in few victories. Last season, RU was 8-24 overall and 2-18 in Big Ten play. However, competing in the best conference in the country is a challenging task for a program that only won 3 league games over six seasons before Schweihofer arrived. It’s been a process in learning along the way as the program faces an steep uphill climb in the Big Ten.

“I had an idea of what was necessary from a training standpoint and also from a mental side of the game, so to speak, right, of how to develop that, how to train that in the off-season,” Schweihofer said. “But I think really being able to pivot to those ideas for a team that was maybe in their first spring or maybe only in their second spring or even a true first spring, having the ability to train from start to finish, it did change kind of the way that I was approaching practices and how we were looking at personal development, not only on court but also just in the mental space.”

Building a program and upgrading the roster isn’t just about talent and depth. Making connections and developing players is the key. Schweihofer spoke about the importance of building that trust with her new team.

“We spent a lot of time this spring talking. I think we spent a lot of time making sure — probably more talking than I expected, but a lot of time talking and just making sure that relationships were really established,” Schweihofer explained. “I’m a very relationship-driven coach, and for me I recognized last season that if the relationship between coach and player is not strong, then it’s hard to give honest feedback. I look at them not as volleyball robots but as people, and I need their feedback, as well, to me. So I think that was an unexpected piece of the spring was really the conversations that occurred in order to create really dynamic relationships leading into the fall.”

Alissa Kinkela emerged last season after just playing four games the year before after suffering an injury as a true freshman. In 2022, Kinkela rebounded by playing in 109 of 110 total sets over 32 games. She led Rutgers with 301 kills and a team high 2.76 per set. It was the ninth most kills in a single season for the program in a rally-era season. She led RU in kills in 14 matches and registered double digit totals in 13 matches. Kinkela emphasized that a lot of progress has been made within the program to put them in a position to produce more wins moving forward.

“I think it’s one thing to see on court how far we’ve come, but behind the scenes, especially since I first started, it has improved dramatically behind the scenes,” declared Kinkela. “I think I view my team as a house that we’re building. You need to build a strong foundation or a structure in order to build a solid building or a house. I feel like, as Caitlin said, we have paved over a lot of bumps, a lot of issues that has enabled us to achieve the goals that we are now seeking to achieve. There has been a lot of improvement behind the scenes which will eventually translate into our game.”

As for team goals, Schweihofer has set realistic expectations.

“We’re headed into our fourth season, and I think we’re right in line with where my expectations were. Major humps that I want to get over is we need to be above .500,” Schweihofer stressed. “That’s something that is really, really important for this program. Obviously that’s difficult to do in such a challenging conference. So looking at the non-conference slate, making sure that we’re not only prepared to play against Big Ten opponents, but also going into the Big Ten season with a significant win-loss record is important.”

Changing a program’s mentality after years of losing is not an easy thing to do. Schweihofer recognizes that and feels that it is changing for the better.

“I think in the past we were seen as a victim, oh, Rutgers volleyball is just something that is an easy win for a lot of programs. I think that this first couple years it’s hard to get over that. It’s hard to get over that,” Schweihofer explained. “I think I truly believe that we are at the point now where, yeah, we might be the underdog, but we’re no longer the victim. We are 100 percent going in with this gritty, underdog mentality this year, and that’s something I see in our gym every single day.”

Of course, Rutgers needs to show progress on the court this season. They open their campaign at the Cavalier Classic in Charlottesville, Virginia against North Carolina A&T on Friday, August 25. They’ll face Virginia or Rider the next day. The Scarlet Knights will also face NC State and Princeton in non-conference play among others.

The 20 game Big Ten slate begins on Wednesday, September 20 at Penn State. The conference annually has 5-6 teams ranked in the top 12 nationally and this year should be no different. Schweihofer stated that she believes this team is different and it will show once the matches begin.

“Sure, you can talk about competitiveness, but it is within them,” said Schweihofer. “All the players on this team bought into my vision, bought into the desire to be the first to put the banners on the wall, to be the first to really make a name for themselves, and no one is really going to think about Rutgers volleyball was 10 years ago once they start seeing these girls out on the court.”

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