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Wayne Cavadi | NCAA.com | September 28, 2016

Surprising teams climb the rankings early on

  The Augustana women's volleyball team recently jumped six spots in the AVCA poll.

Women’s volleyball: Augustana returns to top 10 for first time in nine seasons

It has been a long time coming for Augustana University’s volleyball team. Coming off of its second consecutive 18-win season, the 12-1 Vikings have jumped six spots in this week’s AVCA Coaches Poll, landing at No. 8 in the nation. It is the first time they have cracked the top 10 since September of 2008.

“It’s a really big accomplishment,” senior setter Anna Sykora said. “It’s something to be proud of, but it doesn’t determine who we are as a team or how far we can go. We look at the next game and go from there.”

  The Vikings remain a fairly young team, starting a majority of freshmen and sophomores.
Sykora is one of just two seniors in this Vikings starting lineup, joined by outside hitter Brittany Cech. That’s what makes their fast 12-1 start that much more impressive. An incredibly young rotation and being led by second-year head coach Dan Meske has made it an exciting run to watch.

“I think it helps us as a team because we’re able to have people contribute whether they start on the court or not,” Sykora said. “That youth really helps us out because everyone is learning and growing, and we build off each other. It’s very positive, and we were very excited for the season coming in. Having five freshmen brings a lot of excitement, and it’s super fun.”

This team has been united since it dropped its lone loss to No. 13 Winona State a few weeks back. They have reeled off five straight wins, dropping just five sets during that streak. Sykora said she feels that this team has been able to gel because the players are focused on being the best version of themselves and leading as a whole, instead of demanding any one person step up to shoulder the load. 

“I don’t think there is any pressure on any of us right now to be that ‘leader,’” Sykora said. “It really comes naturally because everyone on the court encourages each other to be a leader. They don’t expect you to be someone else. They want you to be you and be the best version of yourself.”

  So far, the Vikings have lost only a single game.
Meske had a nice rookie campaign last year, leading the Vikings to an 18-11 record, including an impressive 11-3 record at home last season. It was the second 18-win season for Cech and Sykora in a row. However, both were left without seeing the NCAA postseason.

This hot start, one that has seen them defeat No. 15 Palm Beach Atlantic (then No. 3), No. 4 Southwest Minnesota State, No. 9 Wayne State (then No. 4) and No. 11 Northern State, has been pivotal in building the confidence to reach that ultimate goal. The Vikings said they aren’t taking that for granted and refuse to get ahead of themselves.

“It’s super important,” Sykora said. “We’ve had some really big wins this season. It builds our confidence. But, we still go into each game saying that we are 0-0. A big goal of ours is to just win the next point, focus on one point at a time. We want to get better. A lot of teams sometimes stay the exact same team throughout the season.  We aren’t that type of team. We want to keep growing.”

Women’s soccer: Undefeated Rockhurst climbs the rankings

Much wasn’t seemingly expected from the 2016 Rockhurst women’s soccer team. Coming off of a 7-6-6 2015 season, it wasn't on the national rankings board and was picked to finish fifth in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Preseason Poll. 

How quickly things have changed. 

  Rockhurst started the season unranked, coming off an uneventful 2015 season.
The Hawks are currently undefeated, sitting at 8-0-1 right behind Truman State atop the GLVC. They debuted last week at No. 23 in the NSCAA Coaches Poll and climbed another two spots this week after two more wins. They seemingly have put last season's disappointing finish behind them. 

“Our expectations really don't change year over year,” Hawks head coach Greg Herdlick said, who has been at the helms since 1999. “We always want to try to secure a top four spot in the GLVC conference, so we can host a first-round tournament game at the end of the season.  While I seldom refer to previous seasons, I think the returning players recognize getting off to a better start than the previous year, where our first three games all ended in ties, would set the tone for the 2016 conference season.”

The Hawks came out of the gates hot and simply haven’t relented. They have outscored their opponents 17-3 thus far, posting five shutouts and not allowing more than one goal in any game, finding themselves ninth in the country with a .325 goal against average.

“I think the quick and successful start has the team playing with a lot of confidence and the feeling that every game we can win,” Herdlick said. “The team has a very nice blend of 'veterans' as well as newcomers to the squad this year.  While we are 'young' in the backfield, the defense has come together rather quickly and worked extremely well as a unit.  I believe we have allowed just three goals in our nine games, and two of those goals were scored when we were without the current GLVC Defensive Player of the Week, [sophomore] Jess Smelcer.  When she returned to the lineup, the defense has gotten that much stronger.”

While the Hawks first host the always-tough Quincy on Friday, Sunday sees the No. 10-ranked Truman State Bulldogs come to Kansas City for a battle for first place in the GLVC.

  So far this year, Rockhurst has remained undefeated.
“We try to not look ahead at any games, but the current six-game stretch has us playing four teams that qualified for nationals last year,” Herdlick said. “Defeating UMSL last week was a very good road test for us, and now, we have Quincy and Truman State this weekend. Both programs are very well respected not just in our region but throughout the country. Having the successful start, just means that we have a target on our back, and our opponents will have more incentive to knock us off.  Whether it is Quincy, Truman St, Bellarmine or UMSL, the team is excited for the opportunity to play with first place on the line this weekend, which will be the halfway point of the conference schedule. While the season may be a marathon, each game is a sprint to the finish line with the hopes to come out on top when the final whistle blows. The preparation for this weekend will be no different than previous weeks where we look to get better from last week to this week.”

Field hockey: American International holds steady at No. 9

When you discuss DII field hockey, names like Bloomsburg, Shippensburg, LIU Post and East Stroudsburg seem to quickly come to mind. The 8-1 the American International Yellow Jackets are trying to change that perspective. 

Head coach Ashley Mazzoli is entering her third season with AIU. Taking over in 2014 after being an assistant for the Yellow Jackets, Mazzoli led a four-game turnaround, taking them from 8-10 to 12-8 with a spot in the NE-10 championships. Last season, however, didn’t see that momentum continue as AIU finished 4-14.

“We certainly used last year as a way to re-focus our training and commitment to each other,” Mazzoli said. “Each and every game we play is a game of inches, and the margin for error is so small in our conference. The 8-1 start is a great foundation and something that we are proud of, but this group knows that the goal is to be playing in November.”

  In two thrilling overtime matches, AIU was able to pull out wins.
“Despite what happened to us last season, we have put that behind us,” senior forward Taylor Ruscillo added. “It was really important to start out strong because it helped us to set the tone for the rest of the season. We don't think about last year because we want to focus on what lies ahead. We have a fresh team, talented freshmen and a whole new family."

It hasn’t simply been that they are winning, it’s how they are winning. Last week saw two double-overtime thrillers come down to the wire. The Yellow Jackets never gave up and preserved 1-0 both times.

“Learning how to fight and find a way to win in a variety of situations has certainly been important to us this far,” Mazzoli said. “However, it is encouraging that our team understands that we have yet to play our best hockey. Our senior class played key roles during our successful 2014 season. It is nice to watch them use their experience to lead with confidence when the game is on the line. The confidence that we are gaining with a balanced attack and poised defense is certainly something that we are looking to build upon each and every day.”

Ruscillo is one of those four seniors returning for the Yellow Jackets. She either assisted on or scored the game-winning goal in three games of a recent stretch, including one of the double-overtime games last week. She stayed hot Tuesday night, scoring the first goal in the Yellow Jackets 2-1 victory over Bentley, another overtime thriller.

RELATED: LIU Post jumps East Stroudsburg in NFHCA poll

“Winning our last six games has really been a total team effort,” Ruscillo said. “While it's amazing to help lead the team in my senior year, it comes down to working together on the field. Although the ball came off of my stick in the end, it was a team effort to get me to that point. Four seniors don't make an entire team, and thankfully, our young team has proven to be pretty mature.”

While Ruscillo and her teammates timely goals have been a big part of their success, the defense has been superb thus far as well. After Tuesday night’s victory — moving them to 8-1 — they have outscored their opponents 14-4, leaving them second in the nation in goals against average.

“Team defense has certainly been key to our start this season,” Mazola said. “We are certainly more poised defensively this year after learning from many close games last year. Both Taylor Ross and senior captain, Lizz Moulton, earned invaluable experience last year in those close games, and they are doing an excellent job of leading our defensive core thus far.”

  AIU is ranked second in the nation for goals against average.
AIU currently sits atop a stacked NE-10 conference that has the nation’s new No. 1 team in LIU Post as well as perennial powerhouses Saint Anselm and Stonehill. It is important that this team continues to grow together, and Ruscillo said she feels this bunch is special enough to do it.

“Any returner on this team felt a different energy from the first whistle of preseason,” Ruscillo said. “We are truly a family, and each and every one of us has each other’s back on and off the field. We push each other to work harder day in and day out, and the respect that we have for our teammates is unlike anything I have ever experienced. I think this has helped each player buy into our mentality, ultimately setting us up for the success we have found so far.”