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After four straight titles, Miami volleyball is still hungry for success

<p>Junior outside hitter Gaby Harper (pictured, no. 10) and senior libero Abigail Huser (pictured, in red) have made a big impact so far for the RedHawks.</p>

Junior outside hitter Gaby Harper (pictured, no. 10) and senior libero Abigail Huser (pictured, in red) have made a big impact so far for the RedHawks.

“Culture” has become a catch-all word to describe a lot of different elements a team needs to succeed. Every single new coaching hire, from the high school level to the pros, cites the need to improve their new team’s culture. It’s hard to define, but those who have been around good teams know a winning culture when they see it.

That being said, anyone who’s been around the Miami volleyball team knows head coach Carolyn Condit’s program is the quintessential example of a winning culture.

The RedHawks have now won four straight regular season titles in the Mid-American Conference, appearing in the NCAA Tournament twice over that span. Simply put, winning is all this team knows.

“We have a culture that we insist on, you know, that it’s ‘team before me.’ If you have a question about why you’re not playing, come to the coach, but you’re cheering for your teammate that’s in that position, and she’s cheering for you,” Condit said.

Like all teams, Miami was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, as spring workouts were cut short. The team had little to no organized practice as a team from March to October, which is normally when the season would be in full swing.

For some teams, that might mean a drop-off in skill level over time, as a lack of practice leads to rust. However, Condit couldn’t stop raving about the improvements her players made from last season, despite the circumstances.

During the break from organized team activities, players improved their skill sets by practicing with family, friends and whoever else was around. The coaches sent home a list of drills to keep players’ hands and feet ready.

“They had to come back keeping their feet fast, because volleyball is such a split second fast game,” Condit said.

Coaches also encouraged players to do strength workouts, like using a backpack full of bricks to do squats.

Despite losing five seniors, including First-Team All-MAC middle hitter Margaret Payne, the RedHawks are loaded with talent. 

Seniors like setter Morgan Seaman, right side Sarah Wojick and Abigail Huser have set the tone for the team this season. Huser, who wears a different color jersey as the team’s libero, leads the team with 38 digs so far this season. 

Sophomore outside hitter Allyson Severance currently leads the team with six service aces. Severance was one player who, per Condit, has improved her game since returning to Oxford for her sophomore year. The veteran coach praised Severance’s versatility, being able to play in all six rotation positions.

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“Allyson came back after her freshman year and really, in every way, has improved her game and her game intelligence,” Condit said.

Even though the team is loaded with talented veterans, it’s been the freshmen who’ve had to step up in the middle. So far, freshmen middle hitters Abby Stratford and Maggie McCrary have been the starters, a rarity for Condit’s team. McCrary, who was an early enrollee last spring, currently leads the team in blocks with 11, while Stratford is tied for second with nine.

“Tania Schatow, our offensive coach, really works hard with the middles, and she’s brought them along quickly, which we needed,” Condit said.

So far, it’s clear who the best player on the team has been. Junior outside hitter Gaby Harper, who’s already been named First-Team All-MAC and MAC Freshman of the Year in her career, has continued her brilliance this season. Harper leads the team with 37 kills and also has 32 digs and six blocks.

Harper has been Miami’s best player despite playing through a nagging injury. Condit said Harper has a slightly torn labrum in her shoulder. However, the junior outside hitter has been able to adjust her game to play through pain. 

“I’m telling you, she’s really tough,” Condit said. “She’s just a steady player that grinds away, always takes the blame, never blames anyone else for mistakes.”

So far, the team’s work in the offseason is showing, as the RedHawks are currently 3-1. The team swept Buffalo at home, then split a series with Akron. The two games were mirror images of each other, as Miami was up two sets to one before ultimately losing. The next night, the RedHawks were down 2-0 before completing the 3-2 comeback.

The team is attempting to win another regular season conference championship and hoping it won’t suffer another early conference tournament defeat. 

Still, Condit knows winning a fifth straight regular season title will be anything but easy.

“I’ve had a lot of really fine teams, several strings of four (MAC titles) in a row,” she said. “It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to do five in a row. But I know these kids will strive for it.”