It seems to East Carolina outside hitter Sydney Kleinman that conference opponents have been sleeping a bit on the Pirate volleyball team, even if ECU is 4-1 in the conference coming off its most successful season in 35 years. A sophomore transfer from the University of Minnesota, Kleinman is hoping they don’t wake up.
“I think a lot of the other teams in the conference are kind of looking down on us, not giving us a fair shot, which is giving us a lot of momentum and being able to catch teams off guard,” Kleinman said.
The Pirates (12-4) have won their last four conference matches, with their only American Athletic Conference loss coming against Cincinnati on September 21. After an early stretch devoted to finding the right lineup for the young group and igniting team chemistry, head coach Julie Torbett said that her team has been quick to learn, aggressive and communicative on the court. She resists overconfidence or too much celebration about their brisk start, aware that defending American champion Wichita State and perennial force Tulsa are the next two road opponents on the schedule.
“We have a tough schedule ahead of us for sure, and we’re only a third of the way through the conference schedule.” Torbett said. ”We have a lot of volleyball left to play, but I’m proud of them, especially since we’re so young.”
Kleinman has only been a Pirate for a few months, so she is far removed from the team’s years of futility before Torbett’s arrival and wasn’t in the lineup for the 22-win season in 2017. After committing to the Golden Gophers, one brutal Minneapolis winter was enough to convince the Texan that she needed to transfer to a warmer location. She talked to a number of coaches in her search for a new school, she said, but the connection with Torbett was undeniable, and she felt drawn to ECU.
Her goal was to find a team that felt like a family, she said, and if her productivity is any indication she seems to have landed in the ideal environment. She leads the team with kills per set with 2.6, and her 19 kills against Temple last weekend was a career high — on her birthday, no less.
As she has traded blizzards for hurricanes, Kleinman is grateful to be part of a team where the pieces seem to be clicking into place.
“I think we’re really starting to make connections with (setter Shelby Martin), we’re speeding up our offense and running new things,” Kleinman said. We just had to play a little bit and get a few games out of the way. I’m really proud of the way we’re playing right now.”
Another key weapon sparking the Pirates’ conference winning streak is veteran middle blocker Toya Osuegbu, a junior who led the team in blocks last season but who has shifted to a more offensive focus this year. With the graduation of talented hitters like Natalie Montini and Lael Ceriani, Osuegbu understood that her role needed to change this season, and she has made the transition so well that she was named the American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Week on Monday.
The award was a nod to Osuegbu’s powerhouse weekend against Connecticut and Temple — an average of 3 kills per set, 3.38 points per set, and .62 blocks per set and a hitting average of .447. It’s a testament to her leadership and determination that she is having such an impact on the Pirates’ hitting attack.
“She’s had to take some of that offensive role, as an upperclassman,” Torbett said. “Blocking has been her forte, but now she’s had to expand a little more to offense, and she’s done a good job at that.”
After this weekend’s road trip, the volleyball Pirates will return home for matches against Central Florida and South Florida. At this rate, volleyball is likely to be the most successful athletic program at ECU next week as well, so members of the Pirate Nation would be wise to mark their calendars.