Johns Hopkins Volleyball On Unprecedented Roll As NCAA Tournament Begins

Johns Hopkins volleyball coach Matt Troy said his team is preparing for the first round of the NCAA Tournament Nov. 12 just like it prepares for any match.

Top seed Hopkins (29-0) hosts Cabrini at 8 p.m. in its own Goldfarb Gymnasium, the main event after three other Regional matches on site that day as well.

And when Troy says his undefeated Centennial Conference title team is preparing just like any other game, believe him. And if you’re on one of the other eight teams in this regional or any team that should get a crack at the Blue Jays, be wary. Hopkins is the defending national champion from 2019 and currently riding a Division III national record 64-game win streak.

“We always say prepare for each game like a national championship, so our process always stays the same,” Troy said. “How many games are we in now? 64? We have done the same thing for all 64 games. We have not wavered from that process. We approach it the same way every day, and I think that speaks volumes to our players and our program. The ability to do that is not easy.”

The 2021 Centennial Conference Player of the Year, setter and middle blocker Natalie Aston is one of many team leaders who make it look easy.

“To have a group of girls that want to be around each other each day and learn and grow together is the most important factor,” the senior from Woodland Hills, Calif., said. “Everyone that was part of the 2019 [championship] team has done a great job of instilling that in the younger players. It has just made for a practice environment and game environment where we’re looking to better ourselves.”

That’s what college is supposed to be all about, right?

The Secret Of Success

Troy thinks the strong academics at Hopkins are key to the program’s athletic success. It’s a big part of what drew him back for his second stint as head man in 2019, when the Blue Jays flew to a 35-0 mark and their first national title. It may not be their last.

“I certainly think when you get this level of student-athlete, you also get incredible qualities in every single individual,” Troy said. “They’re all great athletes but they’re even better people. When you’re surrounded by people you enjoy working with … it’s a joy to be part of that kind of environment and I think it breeds success.”

Aston points out players often stop practice to help teammates and make adjustments. At timeouts during game action, Troy talks first in the huddle, but then players regularly take over to instruct and push teammates. And not just the veterans, Aston said even freshmen and sophomores have spoken up.

“Matt always says he has never seen a team like us. We don’t just rely on the coaches for feedback,” Aston said. “He gives us ownership of the team and that makes you much more motivated to make it the best it can possibly be.”

Aston is certainly making it the best she can. A versatile 6-foot-2 athlete, she ranks among the top 12 nationally in assists (10.34 per set) and aces (0.64), but also has a team-high 79 blocks and averages 2.09 points per set in addition to setting up teammates.

Natalie Aston
Natalie Aston (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics)

“Natalie’s play speaks for itself,” Troy said. “She’s a dynamic setter, a big front-row presence for us and probably the most kind-hearted and genuine person you’ve ever met. Her teammates absolutely love her.”

Grad student Simone Bliss, the Most Outstanding Player of the 2019 national championship run, missed most of this season with a lower body injury and has just returned in recent weeks. The 5-foot-9 outside hitter from Claremont, Calif., is another strong leader who “drives [the] team,” according to Troy.

Danielle Norman, a 5-foot-10 outside hitter from Monument, Colo., leads the team with 3.07 kills and in “relentless energy.”

“Every single player on our team brings qualities similar to those in their own way,” Troy said. “When you have people that are willing be vulnerable and they know every single person around them cares about them, it’s just really special. You can say all you want about talent, but I think who they are as people is what makes the program.”

Bliss, fellow grad Sydney Portale of Glen Mills, Pa., and senior Eleni Panagopoulos of North Potomac, Md., all earned second-team All-Centennial honors, and senior Lauren Anthony of Edmond, Okla., was honorable mention.

Troy is guiding a roster of 22 players thanks to the pandemic. The team’s talent is undeniable, but the harmony is remarkable, truly a testament to sacrifice toward a common goal and something Troy believed he could build upon in returning to Johns Hopkins.

Back To Baltimore

The other simple thing that brought Troy “home” in 2019 after six years coaching at Mary Washington was the JHU volleyball job changing to a full-time position. He had left the Blue Jays’ nest in 2012 for that security at Mary Washington.

From a family lineage of baseball coaches — his father and grandfather coached on the diamond — Troy first gravitated to volleyball 14 years ago when he and his wife, Melissa, were looking for something to do together while raising their family. They began coaching club teams for fun as Troy pursued his master’s degree at West Virginia while coaching the Linganore High School baseball team in Frederick.

As part of that master’s pursuit, he took a position as an assistant volleyball coach at Gettysburg and enjoyed it so much he then took the Howard Community College head job for a year before landing at Johns Hopkins in 2010.

“It was tough because at that time we had four little ones under the age of 7. I was teaching at Frederick County and driving from Westminster to Frederick and then I’d drive an hour to coach college, and then 45 minutes to get home,” he said. “It was similar at Gettysburg and Howard, so I was doing that for five years straight and it was a lot. I wasn’t home very much — the life of a coach.”

Apparently not just any coach. Since returning to Hopkins, Troy’s team hasn’t lost. This year, they’ve again been dominating with 20 3-0 sweeps of matches while losing just 12 sets all season. The Jays were pushed to five sets just three times.

“I wouldn’t say it has ever been easy,” Troy laughed. “It’s a lot of hard work, on the players’ and coaches’ part. If you had asked me if I would win a national championship undefeated, I never would have said that. It’s such a rare feat that it wasn’t even in my thought process. My thought was I just wanted to give these young women the best possible environment to succeed and at the same time, learn from them. We’re always learning.”

The Blue Jays learned their path Nov. 8 and will be challenged in the 64-team NCAA Tournament field, the first national championship event in the sport since the 2019 title. They’ll also be heavy favorites to advance to Francis Fieldhouse in St. Louis, Mo., Nov. 18-20, for the final three rounds.

Stevenson (26-6) is also in the mix. The Mustangs, making their 10th straight appearance, are an at-large invitee that will meet Clarkson in the Regionals Nov. 12 at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J. Senior MacKenzie Blevins of Elkton, an All-MAC Commonwealth All-Conference selection, leads Stevenson.

Photo Credits: Courtesy of Johns Hopkins Athletics

Mike Ashley

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