Last season, Syracuse volleyball had two matchups cancelled, wearing masks in all its games. The Orange were even forced to play without two of its stars, outside hitter Polina Shemanova and middle blocker Marina Markova, due to visa complications from Russia.
The Orange finished 7-9, including a 7-1 home record, but eight losses on the road by the end of the season.
But this year, Shemanova and Markova are back on the court with eased COVID-19 restrictions. Syracuse, who was predicted to finish sixth in conference play by the ACC coaches poll, will look to improve upon its record from last season and find consistency in its play.
SU’s season-opener is on Friday, Aug. 27th, with a double header against the University of Buffalo and UConn in the Women’s Building, followed by another nonconference game against Albany on Saturday.
Leonid Yelin, who is entering his 10th season as the SU volleyball head coach, expects a slow start from the team, but hopes that wins will come from focusing on certain aspects of the game.
“I can’t expect right off the bat we’re going to do everything great,” Yelin said. “(We) want to win not just somehow, but win by doing the right things.”
Compared to last season, when the Orange played strictly ACC opponents due to a modified schedule, they will now travel out of conference. SU faces 12 nonconference teams before ACC play. Yelin hopes the start of the schedule will prepare the team for conference play. He said SU has to play well against all teams, whether opponents are out of the conference, or sitting at the top or bottom of the ACC.
In order for a successful season this year, Syracuse will require stellar play from senior setter Elena Karakasi, who Yelin called the “quarterback” of the team. In the 2020 season, Karakasi led the team with 467 assists. The next highest player was Lauren Woodford with 91.
“My personal goal is to get us to play really good volleyball as a team and go as high as we can in the ACC and win the title,” Karakasi said. “From there, go (to the) postseason.”
In addition to Karakasi, SU will receive a boost with Shemanova and Markova back in the lineup for the fall. Without Shemanova throughout the spring season, the team struggled offensively with no primary hitter. In 2019, she averaged a team-best 5.16 kills per set and averaged 5.80 points per set. She also led the team in digs with 268. Markova, who had 29 blocks in her limited 2020 fall season, will give SU a defensive boost.
SU also returns junior middle blocker Abby Casiano who was a crucial part of the front line. Casiano led the team with 64 blocks in the 2020 season and was second behind now-Coastal Carolina player Ella Saada in kills.
Casiano, as well as junior Izzy Plummer, travelled to Puerto Rico for the Puerto Rican National Team development camp this summer, which Casiano said will help her adjust to faster paced ACC games.
The Orange also added four freshmen to the roster in the offseason, Peyton O’Brien, Riley Hoffman, Raini Hughes and Diana Okpova, who are all adjusting to Yelin’s system and don’t have any defined roles yet.
SU hasn’t made the NCAA tournament since 2018, recording losing records in the 2019 and 2020 seasons. Still, if the Orange can improve on its road record and find more consistency in its rotations, they could be poised for a successful season, Yelin said.
— Contributing Writer Matt Hassan contributed reporting to this story.
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