The Memphis Tigers volleyball team (3-0) opened this semesters season with three decisive wins against the Drake University, South Dakota State and Eastern Illinois University at the Eastern Illinois University Panther Invitational.
Head coach Sean Burdette opened his second season with a red-hot team, boosting their confidence after last season’s sluggish opening weekend.
“We were able to play at a high level for three matches that occurred in a 24-hour block of time,” Burdette said.
In the first match against the Drake University Bulldogs, the Tigers dropped the opening set 18-25 but managed to outplay the Bulldogs in the next three set to win the game. Sophomore duo Meredith Wallace and Sabrina Bianco, a transfer from the University of New Mexico, had career highs in the game. Wallace downed 18 kills, and Bianco dished out 46 assists.
After the 3-1 victory against the Bulldogs, the Tigers played against South Dakota State and defeated them 3-1. Wallace scored big againwith 19 kills, besting her career-high of 18 kills from the night before. The team played for four sets with the Tigers winning the first two sets before defeating South Dakota State in the final game after a loss in the third.
“One of the biggest things we learned is we have more than one person that can carry an offensive load, and opponents can jump out on one-hitter,” Burdette said.
The Tigers also saw the return of Caitlin Shultz, a graduate student, after being out of action last fall. The contributed to Wallace’s kills with 13 of her own. The two scored 32 of the teams 58 kills.
Wallace and Bianco finished strong Saturday as they led Memphis against Easter Illinois in three straight sets. The Tigers won by 25-16, 25-18 and 25-21. With Easter Illinois defeated, the Tigers walked away with their first road championship since the University of Alabama hosted the 2016 Fight Like Hal Memorial Invitational, and their first 3-0 start since 2011.
Wallace had 14 kills Saturday and led that category throughout the entire weekend. Bianco posted her first double-double as a Tiger with 37 assists and 10 digs. Burdette said the theme he wanted to establish over the weekend was depth and team play in the middle.
“What we saw this weekend was our ability to spread the ball out to multiple players that can score, Burdette said. Caitlin Schulz came up with big kills and middles, Sabrina (Cooper) and Andrea (O’Connor) were good at the net and both offense and defense.”
Memphis will defend its home arena against Garner-Webb and Arkansas-Pine Bluff Friday in a doubleheader and against the University of Tennessee Martin Saturday. Gardner Webb and Arkansas-Pine Bluff opened their respective seasons with a bad start. Both teams dropped all three of their games and are expecting to pick up wins this weekend at the Tiger Brawl.
UT Martin Skyhawks had a bad start to its season, dropping its first three games at the Indiana-Invitational before defeating Florida International University Saturday.
Eight first-year Tigers played in Saturday’s match against Eastern Illinois, including four freshmen. This team has great depth, and that could go a long way into the heart of the season for a young team heading into conference play later this month. Wallace and Bianco were inspiring and should continue to lead the Tigers into this coming weekend’s Tiger Brawl.