Volleyball team must replace five starters despite restricted practices

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Going into the spring season, the Webster Volleyball team only has two of the seven starters from their last conference tournament.

The Webster volleyball team has not played a competitive match since they lost in the conference tournament over 14 months ago. Five of the seven starters from that team are gone, and due to COVID-19, replacing those starters this year has presented new challenges. After missing the fall season, and without the ability to have full practices, head coach Merry Graf still hasn’t been able to say who this year’s starters will be. 

“At this point, we have lots of healthy competition in our gym for positions and we do not have a set starting lineup,” Graf said. “The restrictions have added to the challenges of our season; however, we take the situation seriously and have been diligent in our return to play protocol.  Honestly, we are just happy to be in the gym as a team and working hard to prepare for our spring schedule.”

Webster University volleyball team practices on a Monday morning. They take COVID precautions such as wearing masks, regularly using hand sanitizer and phasing in for practices. Photo by Vanessa Jones.

Of the five players who need to be replaced, the most notable may be Kristen Farrah, Webster’s libero for the past two seasons. In both seasons, Farrah was named the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SLIAC) Defensive Player of the Year. She was also first team all-conference twice, and the SLIAC Volleyball Player of the Year in 2018. Farrah leads Webster in both digs and digs per set all-time. 

The primary candidates to replace Farrah are junior Kyra Gensel and sophomore Tori Cichelero. Gensel played in every match last season as a defensive specialist, usually playing middle-back. She has played in over triple the amount of career sets as Cichelero, and had slightly more digs per set at 2.23 compared to 2.03. Cichelero however, plays mostly left-back, like Farrah did, and has played a National Collegiate Athletic Association varsity match at libero, whereas Gensel has not. Graf said she is not ready to make a decision at libero, or any position, until they are further into practices. 

Senior setter Emma Larson played in all 29 matches last season, making her a favorite to replace graduated setter Jenna Rodriguez. Junior Peyton Eikel also appeared in over half of the matches last season and can play both outside and right-side hitter. Senior middle-hitter Hayley Taylor spent last season injured but should be ready to play this season. 

Another returning player, junior setter and right-side hitter Ali Spohr, has had to get creative with her training with formal practices being limited. Spohr spent her offseason working on her passing, setting and hitting using a one-foot wide wall in her home. Spohr said the wall is very narrow, which helped her refine her control and get reps despite inconsistent access to the gym. Spohr also received workouts from strength and conditioning coach Matt Saitz to stay in good shape for the season. Graf took note of Spohr’s “driven” training. 

“[Spohr] is a very hard worker and has kept herself in great shape,” Graf said. “She and [Gensel] also coach a boy’s club volleyball team and oftentimes coaching can widen a player’s perspective and help them with their own game. I anticipate all her efforts will help her on the court this season.” 

The Gorloks also have six freshmen joining the team this season. Alexis Wolf, the 6-foot, left-handed, right-side hitter from Quincy, Illinois, looks to add some versatility to the otherwise right-handed roster. Graf said Wolf has the potential to be dominant at the net. Freshman Katie Eskildson, another lefty from Klamath Falls, Oregon, can play both the right-side and middle-hitter positions, giving Graf extra options when setting the rotations. Marissa Lanzotti, outside-hitter from Cape Girardeau, Missouri, can play all six rotations, meaning she can play in both the front and back of the court. 

Graf said due to the limited practices, it is too early to tell the identity of this year’s team. The Gorloks haven’t been to the national tournament since 2014 despite having a 72-18 conference record since then. With all that said, Graf is just excited to be able to have a season this school year and is preaching gratitude to her roster. 

“We’ve always talked about having gratitude in our program and the pandemic has helped us keep that as a priority,” Graf said.

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Robby Floyd
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