Increased firepower heightens expectations as LSU’s volleyball team opens 2021 season at home Friday

LSU senior All-American Taylor Bannister will be one of three players in the Tigers' lineup to have compiled more than 1,000 career kills. The Tigers open their 2021 season at 6 p.m. Friday against Michigan in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. Photo courtesy: LSU athletics.

Long-time LSU volleyball head coach Fran Flory hasn’t talked in such terms since she was an assistant when the Tigers reached back-to-back Final Fours in the 1990-91 seasons.

Thirty years later, she believes this year’s team has a similar physical makeup but still needs to achieve the kind of on-court chemistry that could make the 2021 season truly special.

“The talent level in our program is as high as it’s ever been since the late 80s, early 90s when we went to the Final Four,” said Flory, now in her 24th season as head coach. “The question is how do we fit together? The teams that went to the Final Four were the ultimate teams and were connected. Can we develop that with transfers that haven’t been here two or three years? Can we really get that this fast?”

LSU opens its season this weekend hosting the three-day Tiger Classic at the Pete Maravich Assembly Center. The Tigers play Michigan at 6 p.m. Friday, face Northern Arizona at 5 p.m. Saturday and conclude with Florida State at 3 p.m. Sunday.

The Tigers return their entire starting lineup, including All-American right side hitter Taylor Bannister, from last year’s COVID-impacted season in which they were 9-13 and finished eighth in the SEC. But LSU struck off-season gold in the transfer market, adding three-time All-American graduate transfer Kylie Deberg of Missouri and junior outside hitter Sanaa Dotson of Oklahoma.

“This is one of the hungrier, most excited, most confident teams that I’ve had in a long time,” Flory said. “With the addition of the transfers, (it’s) the most talented team. I think we know this is going to be a special year.”

The additions of Deberg and Dotson have sent Flory back in time about 30 years ago when she was an assistant to head coach Scott Luster. He guided LSU to not only consecutive SEC championships, but also two straight appearances in the Final Four.

The program hasn’t been back to that juncture. It hasn’t won a match at the NCAA tournament since 2014.

SEC coaches agree big things are in store for LSU, which they chose to finish third trailing only defending national champion Kentucky and Florida.

Flory said getting back the program back to a high level won’t occur just because of a deep, veteran roster with four graduate students and a pair of seniors. It also will hinge on intangibles such as chemistry, which appears to already be in place.

“This is one of the closest teams I’ve ever had,” said Flory, 482-288 at LSU and 502-400 overall in 30 years.

Not only will LSU feature one of the SEC’s more imposing front lines, but potentially one of the nation’s best with 6-foot-5 Bannister and 6-4 Deberg combining to help the Tigers pack quite an offensive punch at the net and from the back row.

Deberg transferred to LSU to play in her extra year of eligibility in the Tigers’ beach volleyball program next spring, but then decided to also immediately play volleyball in the fall.

Last season for Missouri, Deberg led the SEC in kills (433), points (505), kills per set (4.76), points per set (5.55) and aces per set (0.46) last season. She ranked third in the country in total kills, points and aces, sixth in kills per set and fifth in points per set. Deberg also eclipsed the 20-kill mark in 10 matches last season and compiled eight double-doubles in the shortened year.

Bannister finished just behind Deberg in the SEC last season at No. 2 in kills (385), kills per set (4.38), points (450) and points per set (5.11).

Dotson is a 6-foot outside hitter that will meld her talents along with returning players such as sophomore outside hitter Paige Flickinger, graduate student outside hitter Hannah Brister, who joined the team last spring, and freshman Ellie Echter.

The Tigers will boast one of the nation’s rarest qualities in having three players – Bannister (1,640), Deberg (1,382) and Brister (1,273) – with more than 1,000 career kills.

The middle blocker position is a strength for LSU ,which returns senior Whitney Foreman (110 kills, 54 digs), junior Anita Anwusi (108 kills, 51 total blocks) and junior Allee Morris, who looked good in preseason workouts, Flory said.

“Teams that play us may have to pick their poison,” Flory said. “They’re going to have to decide whether they’re going try to stop Kylie or try and stop Taylor. I don’t know if you’re going to stop both of them. It’s nice to have people that have carried the load for their respective teams on the same side of the net together.

“If we can run it balanced, it will be awfully hard to defend. We’re not going to be perfect every night. The best of that is we’ll be able to rely on the others. We have a lot of depth for the first time in a long time. Our team’s like, ‘we’re loaded’. I told them I know, but we have to stay healthy.”

LSU’s offense, which Flory expects to run at a quicker pace, will have the luxury of a returning veteran setter in junior Karli Rose, who was among the best in the SEC with 838 assists and a 9.52 assists per set average. She also contributed 193 digs and 53 kills.

The defense will count on the contributions of graduate student libero Raigen Cianciulli (program’s career leader in digs with 1,762), graduate student defensive student Emmaline Walters (85 digs, 57 blocks) and junior defensive specialist Jill Bohnet (137 digs).

“It’s going to be a challenge to get on the court, which is a coach’s dream,” Flory said. “You’ve got to fight your way to get on the court. You better fight your way to stay there because you have someone on your heels.

“We’re running a completely different offense than in the past. We’ve gone fast in the past but not this fast. I believe we have the ball control to do it. Karli’s going to have to have a good year and our passing and defense are going to have to put the ball in Karli’s hands and we have the physicality we haven’t had in the past. That’s a huge plus.”

LSU didn’t have to wait until its match with Michigan to get a read on the potential of this year’s team, taking advantage of the opportunity to go toe-to-toe with top-ranked Texas in a Aug. 21 scrimmage that provided favorable results.

“We played really well,” Flory said. “We can be physical and play with the big girls. There’s a lot of areas we need to improve on before Friday but those areas for the most part that are fixable.”

The season-opening Tiger Classic represents the beginning of an ambitious 28-match schedule. LSU visits Penn State and Rice as part of a stretch of eight matches on the road that concludes with the start of SEC play Sept. 22 against Arkansas.

The Tigers are scheduled to play 18 conference games that will incorporate some of last season’s scheduling model with back-to-back games against six teams, highlighted by consecutive matches with Florida (SEC’s No. 2 preseason team) on Oct. 9-10 and Kentucky (SEC’s No. 1 preseason team) on Oct. 14-15.

“Our schedule is loaded to be able to have a chance to be ranked and a chance to play our way into the NCAA tournament in the first three or four weeks of the season,” Flory said. “We’ll be prepared by the time we get to the SEC play, and the veteran nature of our team will lead us through.”

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