Ohio State women's volleyball's 'tired of nice,' no longer satisfied with Sweet 16 finishes

Colin Gay
The Columbus Dispatch

Jen Flynn Oldenburg knows the Ohio State’s women’s volleyball team isn’t a giant yet. But the third-year coach wants to see how the Buckeyes respond when they face one. 

Heading into the 2022 season, the Buckeyes' endgame is blatantly clear. It’s why they have two games against No. 2 Texas to begin the season. It’s why they have scheduled preseason games against five top-25 opponents, including the team that ended its previous season, before entering a gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule. 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University women’s volleyball head coach Jen Oldenburg looks onto the court during a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

This is the year, Oldenburg said, Ohio State makes it past the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. 

“Sweet 16’s are very nice,” Oldenburg said. “We’re tired of nice, and we want more.” 

Ohio State’s past two Sweet 16 losses serve as the team’s rallying cry heading into 2022, returning a roster filled with players who don’t want to feel the way they did after falling in straight sets against Georgia Tech to end last season. 

It’s a different energy than when Oldenburg was an Ohio State volleyball player, she said, watching a group take ownership and demand more of one another. 

And it’s something Ohio State doesn’t shy away from talking about. 

“We definitely all know where we want to go,” junior outside hitter and 2021 AVCA honorable mention All-American Emily Londot said. “We want to get further than the Sweet 16. We want to get further than the Elite Eight. We want to make it to that national championship.” 

Ohio State women's volleyball continues turnaround

But it’s a long way from what Ohio State looked like when Mac Podraza first joined the team in 2019. 

The Buckeyes were two years removed from an NCAA Tournament appearance and on their way to a third-straight losing season, posting a record of 42-53 from 2017-19. 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University setter Mac Podraza (10) strikes the ball while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

During Podraza’s recruitment, she said her focus was on finding a program that had a history of success that she could help turnaround, where she could create her own legacy and leave it better than when she first arrived. 

“I think it’s really cool to have been a part of the start,” said Podraza, who earned AVCA third-team All-American honors in 2021.

In Oldenburg's first season in 2020, Ohio State made a drastic turnaround, posting a record of 16-4, finishing fourth in the Big Ten and ending the season in the Sweet 16. 

Heading into year two, the Buckeyes showed their winning ways were not a fluke, finishing 27-6 and third in the Big Ten before losing to Georgia Tech in the Sweet 16. 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University middle blocker Rylee Rader (20) strikes the ball towards Zaria Ragler (21) while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

“Whenever we started winning these games that we weren’t winning the previous year,” junior middle blocker Rylee Rader said, “we were like, ‘Oh wow. Like this is us now. We have to step up.’ ” 

Heading into her third year with Ohio State, a program that has lost 10 games in the past two seasons, Oldenburg said she is leading a group that is not worried about the pressure of expectations. 

Instead it’s a confident group focused on enforcing its strong defensive mentality, frustrating opposing hitters by keeping the ball off the floor, while confusing teams by playing out of system, where an offense doesn't use one single setting option, but multiple.

“I think it’s tweaks here and there,” Podraza, the team’s setter, said. “The game isn’t perfect. The game is a game of errors, so there (are) always little tweaks that we can make. I think just trying to figure out these tempos with these hitters and getting everybody in the same groove.” 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University outside hitter Chelsea Thorpe (7) high-fives teammate Zaria Ragler (21) while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

Putting “Buckeye volleyball back on the map”

With 13 returners from last year’s team, the majority of Ohio State’s roster is on the same page of what it will take to make that next step. 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University defensive specialist Kylie Murr (6), left, celebrates with defensive specialist Sydney Taylor (11) while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

Part of the responsibility Londot feels heading into her junior season is to make sure the team’s three freshmen — Anna McClure, Chelsea Thorpe and Zaria Ragler — are caught up to speed on what is expected. 

To Londot and the rest of the returners on the roster, it’s a key component in the process of Ohio State becoming a giant: to pass it on, to ensure the Buckeyes stay in the top tier of the Big Ten along with programs like Wisconsin and Nebraska. 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University middle blocker Rylee Rader (20) spikes the ball over the net while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

It’s the path Podraza said Ohio State is already on. It’s what she helped start, putting “Buckeye volleyball back on the map” to becoming one of the “top dogs.” 

“I think that comes with the future, the legacy that we’re leaving behind,” Podraza said. “What we’re doing right now is very important and I think it’s important for the next generations and the next kids coming in to see what we’re doing and the work we’re putting in and the climb we’re making.” 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University opposite hitter Emily Londot dives for the ball while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch

It’s a climb Ohio State women’s volleyball is proud of. But it’s not something the team is satisfied with. 

Rader, who earned AVCA second-team All-American honors in 202, knows Ohio State can take another step forward in 2022. 

“We’re tired of hearing about these good teams,” she said. “We’re ready to be that team.” 

Aug 20, 2022; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State University outside hitter Chelsea Thorpe (7) defends against middle blocker Rylee Rader (20) while playing in a preseason scrimmage at Covelli Center, OSU campus. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Scheller-The Columbus Dispatch