By Tori Wittenbrock
Associate Sports Editor
GREEN BAY – After a tough string of preseason and exhibition matches, the UW-Green Bay Phoenix women’s volleyball team is ready to take the court as they head into conference play in the 2023 regular season.
After finishing third in the Horizon League 2022 season standings with a conference record of 13-5 and overall record of 23-11, the Phoenix are ready to climb even further up in the standings this year, with a new focus, new roster and new mantra.
“It’s more about the dynamic and the people. Last year our theme was 5% more fun. No one really had fun during COVID, so it’s okay now if we take some time to recover from that and do things 5% more fun, even if it’s slightly less efficient,” said Head Coach Abbey Sutherland.
Notable losses for the team last season include two drops to Wright State (18-0) who placed first in the conference, one to Northern Kentucky (15-3) and one to Cleveland State (10-8).
The Phoenix is in a bit of uncharted territory this season, finding themselves with quite a few new additions to the roster.
“We lost six, and there were eight players on the team last year who aren’t on the team this year, so that’s a big turnover, but that’s okay. We are good enough and we’ve got a lot of people who can step in. We have two transfers, one from Indiana State that’s been playing libero for us and getting used to her role lately. We also have Hannah Vandenberg who is also getting used to her role in coming back from a knee injury,” explained Sutherland.
In addition to the fresh legs on the team, the Phoenix also have some important returners on their roster this year as well.
“Cora Benhke will be an emerging hitter. She has played for us the past couple of years but she really stepped up and I think that people will be excited to watch her swing.”
The Phoenix women’s volleyball team faced a difficult preseason spread, particularly through the teams they faced in the Clemson Invitational in Clemson, S.C. where they faced three straight losses to South Alabama, Western Carolina and Clemson.
“We’ve been playing without a true setter, which is essentially like playing football without a quarterback. It’s been really hard because when we get the ball it’s basically, slow pass, slow pass, and then they know where we are setting, which is tough. From an offensive side, we just really need to get back in our groove with a setter now,” said Sutherland. “Defensively we really need to work on serving tough. We talk a lot about how serving tough and missing serves does not correlate with wins and losses, and that’s a quote I took from the Stanford coach. It’s obviously really tough to miss serves, but going for it can be beneficial. We are also working on improving our first ball stop.”
However, Sutherland said that things are looking up for the team as they head into their final preseason stretch as they head into the Capital Credit Union Classic this weekend.
“This weekend will be really interesting because we will finally be playing with a setter, but it is a new challenge for us and seeing what our team will look like. It’s really just a lot of continuing to be resilient, and we define resilience as having trust and care, so even though it’s really hard right now we are still working on building that trust and care,” said Sutherland.
According to the Horizon League Preseason Poll, the Phoenix were predicted to place third this season, falling just behind Wright State (1) and Northern Kentucky (2).
With a well-established coach heading up the program, Abbey Sutherland, the team is looking solid as they prepare for their upcoming regular season matches this year entering their sixth season under Sutherland’s expertise.
“Bouncing back from adversity will be important this season. This is one of my favorite teams that I have coached in years as far as personnel and understanding that everything is going to be okay and that we just have to keep fighting even though there are a lot of uncontrollables,” said Sutherland.
Sutherland holds a winning record with the team after a coaching career at UW-Green Bay which spans over five seasons (83-59).
Their first home game of the 2023 Horizon League season will take place on Friday, Sept. 22, at the Kress Events Center at 6:00 p.m. as the Phoenix face-off against the Purdue Fort Wayne Mastadons.