Does a great defense result in winning a championship? It’s a popular adage that can foster an instant sports debate. University of San Diego volleyball setter and defensive specialist Jianna Bonomi knows very well that a finely tuned defense is critical for the success her team has already accomplished and what’s still possible during the 2013 season.
“Defensively, we’re definitely one of those teams that plays with a lot of grit,” the 5-foot-5 junior standout said. “I play defense and it’s a personal jab when someone scores on me. I know all the other back row players feel the same way. The coaches implement that within each player: ‘You’re hitting the floor and you’re getting that ball.’ I feel it frustrates a lot of teams we play. They’re bigger than us. We’re a smaller team, but the fact that they’re not getting the kills they’re used to getting is because we’re scrappy and we work our butts off to get what we get. It frustrates them. I love contributing to our team’s success in that way. Defense is definitely one of our team’s strengths.”
USD volleyball, indeed, has had a banner season to date. Its recorded its highest national ranking (a USD athletics-best No. 2 in September, now No. 8); won an outright West Coast Conference title; hosted an NCAA Tournament regional for the first time since 2006; and, after two wins, plays at Nebraska this Friday in a Sweet 16 match with a chance to be the first team in program history to go the deepest in postseason play. Defense has certainly played a role.
“Our coaches know we’re the backbone of the team defensively,” said C’era Oliveira, a 5-5 senior libero (pictured, top). “A lot of things fall to us by doing our jobs. It’s important to be mentally strong and that our blockers trust us that if they’re not able to get it, we’re there to back them up, dig the ball, get it to the setter and let our hitters put it away.”
Bonomi and Oliveira, junior Sandra Lozic, senior Taylor Hollins, and freshman Hunter Jennings are all part of a solid back row. In a sport where there’s constant player rotation, a need for strong blocking up front and digs in the back, it’s imperative everyone has the same defensive mindset.
“Part of the success of the defense is that they’re really good students of the game,” USD Head Coach Jennifer Petrie said. “The defense changes depending on the opposition so you need players who read situations, who understand what the game plan is and actually execute it. It’s not a set prescription all the time. It flows and they have to know what adjustments to make and when. Maybe the set’s not there, the location is off, and they make adjustments on the fly. Because of the amount of years they’ve played and experience on the court together, that all plays into how hard the defense is to score against.”
“I remember being on the court and me and C’era were covering everything we could get our hands on,” Bonomi said. “Sandra and Taylor were back there, too, and everything was coming up — but we never gave up. We were grinding it out, telling ourselves ‘we’re going to win the point.’ Winning the BYU match was evidence of how our defense has progressed throughout the season.”
Oliveira earned WCC Player of the Week honors for her performance, recording a career-high 34 digs, the third-highest match dig total in program history.
It was a good indication of the team’s desire to win the WCC title outright, but also to raise their game with postseason positioning at stake. The win set the tempo for USD’s entry into the NCAA Tournament regional last weekend at the Jenny Craig Pavilion.
“I thought we played some of the best volleyball we’ve played this year,” Petrie said of regional wins against UC Santa Barbara and Arizona. “They were so in the zone. Everything was very fluid, even when we transitioned out of our defense. It’s one thing to dig a tough ball, but then someone needs to make the right set and the attacker needs to complete the play. As a unit, they all played so well, which is great to see at this point of the season.”
The Toreros (26-3 record) take a 17-match win streak into Friday’s 5 p.m. match with host Nebraska. Defending NCAA champion Texas and American University meet earlier Friday. Winners play at 6 p.m. Saturday on ESPNU for a berth into the Final Four, happening Dec. 19 and 21 in Seattle.
Collectively, the Toreros are ready. Defensively, because of season-long intense practices and a never-satisfied mental approach, they’re dialed in.
“We see all of these big teams among the 16 that are left,” Oliveira said. “But we use our volleyball IQ and athleticism as an advantage. We’re scrappy and we have a lot of heart. I think it plays to our advantage and other teams can’t grasp it, plus our team chemistry is really powerful.”
They know, too, that everything matters.
“We have to stay crisp, like it was against Arizona,” Oliveira said. “We were on point because every single point was valuable to us. We don’t overlook any play because we need to play to our best potential all game long.”
— Ryan T. Blystone
Photos courtesy of Brock Scott and USD Athletics