The University of Louisville Volleyball team has taken the country by storm thus far this season, beginning the 2021 campaign with a program-best 21-0 start. The second-ranked Cardinals have put their dominance on full display while rarely being threatened by the opposition. However, the pressure gradually increases with each victory as the team currently sits atop the ACC and at number-two nationally. If harnessed and approached the right way, pressure can be used to form diamonds. The team’s continual success is a testament to its outstanding foundation; one highlighted by resilience, trust, and experience.
“Resiliency throughout the season has been big,” star setter Tori Dilfer said. “There are distractions, fatigue, and overall, just a lot that goes into it. Staying resilient both personally and as a team has been a sign of our maturity as a group.”
Louisville hasn’t spent much time trailing their opponents for the most part, but that resiliency was put to the test against Pittsburgh in late October. The Cardinals dropped the first set to the fourth-ranked Panthers before going on to win the thriller in five, but never panicked when hit with adversity.
“We knew we were not adjusting as quickly as we needed to,” Dilfer admitted. “You can go into a match with a game plan, and as great as that plan may be, things are going to change. When we started making those changes, that’s when we are able to start showing that resiliency.”
The team’s ability to get back up after getting knocked down is a byproduct of the leadership, experience, and overall talent of the squad. “Knowing the team has the ability to bounce back quickly is huge,” Dilfer said. “You can’t practice that; it’s something that comes with experience, and we have that. I rely a lot on past experiences as a team for our confidence; we’ve done a lot of great stuff on and off the court. We’ve grown significantly as a team.”
— Louisville Volleyball (@UofLVolleyball) October 31, 2021
Many of the Cardinals were apart of the squad that took down #2 Texas in the 2019 NCAA Sweet 16, a tournament run that is paying dividends for the team in the present. Not only is the experience critical, but the individual progression and player chemistry benefit as well.
Instead of having one star, Louisville possess a strong nucleus of standouts that fill Dani Busboom Kelly’s rotation. From attacking to setting to defense, the strength resides in the overall balance between the different aspects of the game. The Cardinals have a nuclear offense, but one could argue that the defense makes the team’s ceiling so high.
Ranked sixth in the country in blocks per set (2.93), the Louisville defense is headlined by middle blocker Amaya Tillman. The 6-foot-3 junior has been a crucial factor in the program’s middle presence since arriving in the Derby City, and currently leads the squad with 97 blocks while averaging 1.45 per set (eighth nationally). However, the reigning-ACC Defensive Player of the Year believes the defensive strengths are more of result from solid communication and the players around her.
“I think it just says a lot about our defense as a whole,” Tillman explained. “The main key to that is communication, which happens before, during, and after the play. Elena (Scott) is telling me what I can do better on my blocks to help set her up better in the backcourt, Aiko (Jones) is talking to me on my right, and Anna (DeBeer) on my left. Communication just plays a big role in it all; it makes things easier when you’re playing fast offenses like Pittsburgh.”
Two-thirds of the earth is covered by water, while the other third is covered by the Louisville defense. The program has benefitted from returning the heart of their successful defense from a season ago, but the addition of freshman Elena Scott has taken the defense to new heights. The high school setter turned libero/defensive specialist currently leads the Cardinals with 260 digs. For Dilfer, the Louisville native has been a gamechanger.
“I think I can speak for the entire team when I say that we are extremely impressed with Elena’s transition,” Dilfer said. “We’re thankful for her ability to adjust to whatever role she earns; I’m impressed with her maturity both on and off the court. She’s not easily shaken; she has been put in tough situations and has handled them well. She knows the game really well and I don’t know many volleyball players that see the game better than Elena and Amaya do. They really have eyes for it in a way that I’ve never seen and that’s the base of our defense.”
The spectacular defense is often rewarded by the Louisville offense, which is one of the most efficient in the country. The Cardinals are fourth-nationally in hitting percentage, swinging at a .311 clip. The recurring theme that keeps resurfacing is balance and that epitomizes the team’s attack. Five players have recorded at least 145 kills so far in the season; Tillman and Anna Stevenson occupy the middle attack, while Anna DeBeer, Aiko Jones, and Claire Chaussee headline the outside presence.
“They really do make my job easy,” Dilfer said. “We have that efficiency across the board and it’s not just one or two players hitting for a high efficiency. I never feel like there is someone we need to avoid setting the ball to; a lot of it is matchups and game-planning what we feel we can expose in the opponent’s defense. Match-flow is a big factor that plays into it as well.”
Louisville’s electric offense and stellar defense are connected by the reigning-ACC Setter of the Year, and her impact is pivotal. “She is the best setter in the ACC,” Tillman said of Dilfer. “I’m so thankful for her; she takes feedback very well and I trust her no matter what. She just tells us to drive as hard as we can and her bond with everyone on the team sets the tone for games in general.”
Overall, the Cardinals have stayed grounded and fought through a phenomenon they call the “October Blues”. The phrase represents the cumulative fatigue and mental toll that the season brings in the middle part of the schedule. Staying in the present and never getting complacent having prevented the team from falling victim to the blues.
#NCAAVB Committee Top 10 (as of 10/27/21)
— NCAA Women's Volleyball (@NCAAVolleyball) October 31, 2021
“We talk about always respecting your opponent,” Tillman explained. “That’s something teams may forget about, but we always try to keep that in mind and honor our opponent. They’re not going to take a point for granted, so we shouldn’t either. We can also continue getting better working on the little things. Serving and passing are main focuses in any program, but just staying disciplined in practice every day and not just going through the emotions are key.”
The program’s upward trajectory over the two decades have increased the fan support; the home atmosphere and impact in the community as a whole are what make this program special.
“L&N (Federal Credit Union Arena) is an awesome arena,” Dilfer said. “It gets really loud and there is a great atmosphere. I can even just tell a difference in the atmosphere this year versus past years when it has been packed. You can feel the love and support from the fanbase, and that has meant a ton to us and gets us fired up. We feed off that energy; our bench probably has the best energy out of any bench in the country.”
The crowds for the matches against Kentucky and Pittsburgh were sold out, but the fan support extends beyond attendance. The city has grown into a national volleyball hub at the youth level, which in turn puts the Louisville players in a celebrity-like image.
“I think it’s so cool and it’s something we see when we sign autographs after games. Something that is fulfilling about sports in general is being able to connect with your community. Even though we may not have all individually come from Louisville, you’re going to have a lot of people rooting for you no matter where you’re from,” Tillman added.
As good as the team has been to start the season, one thing remains clear: the Cardinals are not satisfied. With national championship aspirations driving the program, Louisville continues to remain grounded and relying on their foundation.