The seven seniors on Ohio State’s women’s volleyball team are not afraid to talk about legacy.
It’s not something they are saving for the end of their time with the Buckeyes after the NCAA Tournament is complete.
“I will talk about it till the day I die because I’m so proud of each and every one of us,” senior defensive specialist Kylie Murr said. “And I really think we’ve taken this program to a top-level program that people are now scared about."
But in the final four games of Ohio State’s 2022 regular season, this legacy talk has turned into a rallying cry: proof that the Buckeyes are as good as they say they are heading into the NCAA Tournament.
And while Ohio State lost each of its past four games and 12 of its past 17 sets, the Buckeyes say they are right where they want to be heading into the tournament.
Ahead of its first-round matchup as a No. 3 seed against Tennessee State, Ohio State is playing “Buckeye volleyball” again.
‘It’s a fluke. We’ll be fine.’
Jen Flynn Oldenburg isn’t shy about what this season-ending stretch has been like for Ohio State.
“It’s the worst,” she said.
Initially, Ohio State was rolling, sitting in a prime position to secure a Big Ten title after a 14-game win streak that included five ranked wins such as the one over then-No. 4 Nebraska, which the Buckeyes beat in four sets at home Nov. 13.
“You play Nebraska and then people are going to tell you you’re going to win the national championship, people are telling you you’re going to win the Big Ten,” Oldenburg said. “That’s all nice things to hear and our team certainly believed all that, and I believed it.
“And then you go to Maryland and it’s like, ‘Whoa, just got punched in the face. OK, how do we respond? Not well against Indiana. OK, let’s regroup. Not well against Minnesota.’ The hits keep coming.”
In the three games against Maryland, Indiana and then-No. 9 Minnesota before the final game of the season against the Badgers, Ohio State won only four of 13 sets, with seven sets decided by five points or less.
The hits led to a slide in the Big Ten that saw Wisconsin take control of the conference and Ohio State fall to a third-place tie with Minnesota.
Senior setter Mac Podraza knew what Ohio State volleyball was supposed to play like: a cohesive unit that focused on one another, that plays as one and that’s not worried about the end result.
Podraza said she and her teammates held their heads high knowing that a run like this wasn’t normal.
“I think for lack of anything else, just the fact that it’s a fluke,” Podraza said. “It’s not how we play. We’re just not playing the way we know how to play. And it’s a fluke. We’ll be fine.”
Ohio State flips the switch
Ohio State’s regular season didn’t end the way it wanted to.
On paper, it was just another loss, falling in four sets to No. 3 Wisconsin and entering the NCAA Tournament on a four-game skid.
But to the Buckeyes, this was the game where the switch was turned back on.
After losing each of the first two sets to the Badgers, Murr remembers pulling the team aside and reminding them to take the pressure away, to play one point at a time and be present.
To senior outside hitter Gabby Gonzales, it was a reminder of a refrain heard time and time again: “Just do your job.”
“We’re all great volleyball players and we’ve got a team full of 16 damn awesome volleyball players,” Gonzales said. “Just trusting each other and knowing that the girl to your left, the girl to your right, like we’re all in this together. And no matter what happens, we’re going to go to battle.”
Trailing 4-3 at the beginning of the third set against the Badgers, a kill by senior outside hitter Jenaisya Moore ignited a 5-0 Buckeyes run, a lead Ohio State would keep to extend the game to four sets.
And when Wisconsin took Ohio State to match point in the fourth set — leading 24-20 — the Buckeyes fought, using a five-point swing to take a one-point lead before falling short 27-25.
As Oldenburg left the Covelli Center floor, she was encouraged, seeing an Ohio State team that was relaxed, calm, free and loose on the floor.
“How we came out in set three, I think, is going to set the tone for the tournament,” Oldenburg said. “The fight that we showed at the end of set four, it’s not the result we wanted, but it was good to see that fight and competitive spirit.”
Murr simply calls that Ohio State volleyball, a free-flowing unit that’s unstoppable when that switch is turned on.
“No one will have an answer for us when we’re all doing that,” Murr said.
'If we play the way we did, we could win it all'
After Ohio State’s loss to Wisconsin Saturday, the team lined up for its annual Senior Day celebration.
For Gonzales, the weight of that moment didn’t change even though the Buckeyes came up short minutes before.
“It’s easy to celebrate when you’re surrounded by so many good people,” Gonzales said. “It’s not about the win or the loss at the end of the day. It’s about all the work that’s gone up to it. It’s about the people, it’s about the relationships and just the bonds we’ve created with everyone.”
Together, Ohio State has navigated two-straight Sweet 16 losses, a gauntlet of a 2022 preseason schedule with the intention of pushing the Buckeyes into that upper echelon of Division 1 volleyball programs. Together, this senior class has completely revamped what it means to play “Buckeye volleyball.”
And after the Buckeyes’ four-set loss to Wisconsin, that’s what Oldenburg focused on.
“If we play the way we did, we could win it all. And they’re saying it, too,” Oldenburg said. “I think that’s what’s exciting is that we found ourselves again, and we’re ready for what’s next.”
Ohio State knows what it’s getting into when it enters the NCAA Tournament, having played nearly every top-10 team in the sport during the 2022 season.
In Podraza’s final NCAA Tournament, expectations remain as high as they have ever been.
“We know how to play Buckeye volleyball,” Podraza said. “It’s our way. There is a way that is Buckeye volleyball, and we know it and we feel it. And once we hit it, we’re ready to run with it.
“If we do that, there is not a team in this country that can beat us.”
No. 3 Ohio State will host Tennessee State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament 7:30 p.m. Dec. 2 at the Covelli Center. The winner will take on the winner of No. 6 USC and High Point 6 p.m. Dec. 3.
This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio State women's volleyball prepared to make NCAA Tournament run