Rookie trio helps elevate Mount de Sales volleyball squad (VIDEO INTERVIEWS BELOW)

Mount de Sales freshman stars Mary Grace Goyena, Kelsey Miller and Chidinma Onukwugha have the Sailors in the thick of the IAAM A Conference volleyball race for first place

by Nelson Coffin

With three promising freshmen entering the Mount de Sales Academy volleyball squad this summer for preseason practice, coach Tuan Nguyen said he was excited about the chances for the Sailors to better the 9-9 mark they had in Nguyen’s first year at the helm in 2016.

Just how much better his team has become, though, has probably even caught the coach and a bunch of other people by surprise.

After all, the Sailors are currently ranked sixth in the VSN volleyball Top 20 with a sparkling 8-1 record and remain unbeaten (7-0) in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference this fall after sweeping unranked McDonogh School, 25-6, 25-19, 25-9, on Monday in Catonsville.

And they boast one of the most imposing front rows in the area, with 6-foot rookies Chidinma Onukwugha and Mary Grace Goyena dominating the net from the middle and left side, respectively.

The other freshman, Kelsey Miller, who has battled back from a recent injury, is one of three setters on a club that boasts plenty of depth, talent and will to win.

To be sure, the newcomers have welcomed the help from a group of veterans that includes senior captains Camille Kresisel, Monica Wallace and Hanna Katulski.

The latter trio has helped to make sure that the transition phase of acclimating the youngsters has gone smoothly as possible.

“I feel like our seniors and our upperclassmen are really supportive,” Miller said. “They weren’t ever mean to us or anything. They were always like, ‘welcome.’”

Katulski said that the kids were already pretty much up to speed.

“We recognized very quickly the talent that they brought to the team,” she said. “They were already on our level, so it wasn’t like we had to introduce them to our game. They were familiar already with what we were doing.”

Goyena, who had a game-high 14 kills against McDonogh, is clearly the team’s go-to hitter.

“We’re trying to use her to the best of our ability. She’s amazing, in that sense,” Kreisel, the team’s starting setter, said about Goyena’s powerful swings. “It’s about that, but it’s also about mixing it up and keeping things unpredictable, but always going back to her when we need to get out of a tight spot.”

Katulski said that Goyena is a factor wherever she is on the court.

“Back row, front row, she’s reliable,” said Katulski, the Sailors’ other starting outside hitter. “We can set her from the back row, so she can run anything from anywhere.”

That said, there is enough room for the others to shine as well.

“We also have some other good outlets,” Katulski continued. “Like if I’m opposite Mary Grace and Mary Grace isn’t doing well, I’ll try to step in. Or we try to get a good pass to one of our middles, because that’s one of the quickest ways to intimidate another team.”

Speaking of the middle, that’s where Goyena was stationed on her club team until Nguyen suggested that she move outside.

The results were positive and immediate.

“I asked her how she felt about playing outside hitter,” Nguyen remembered. “I had watched her play in the middle in club ball, but when she moved outside, that’s when I felt we really had something special.”

And with Onukwugha manning the middle, the Sailors are that much more potent.

“Having Chidinma in the middle gives us more balance,” the coach added. “And it keeps opponents guessing.”

Despite how dominant his team has been, Nguyen does not want his team to get ahead of itself, considering it has another key conference match against St. Paul’s School for Girls on Thursday and a big non-league battle against Severna Park the next day.

“I tell the girl;s all the time that you can’t take any team for granted,” he said, knowing that the Eagles took a 14-13 lead in the second set on Monday. “I tell them all the time that they have to play our game and to never let up.”

And what is their game?

“We have to stick to fundamentals and play good defense,” he said. “And we have a great outside hitter.”