One set away from blemishing a perfect weekend, the Razorbacks turned up the heat and put pressure on Montana State to turn a 2-0 set deficit into a 3-2 comeback win over the Bobcats on Aug. 31.
Along with a total of 41 kills over the last three sets, outscoring the Bobcats in that category by 22, the Hogs held Montana State to under 18 points in the same timeframe to complete the comeback.
With the hard-fought victory, Arkansas volleyball began its 2019 season with a perfect three wins across three games in two days in the Arkansas Classic. The Hogs came into Saturday having already played two games the day before against other Classic opponents Arkansas-Little Rock and Northwestern State. All games were at Barnhill Arena.
The Razorbacks swept the Lady Demons 3-0 at noon Aug. 30 before doing the same to the Trojans later that day where the Hogs never trailed once during the three sets.
Head coach Jason Watson is in his fourth season at the helm of the volleyball program and is coming off a disappointing 11-17 overall record last season, in which the Hogs only won five Southeastern Conference games out of 18.
Watson and his coaching staff also went through the most roster turnover over the offseason since the transition from his first season to his second in 2017-18. In total, the Razorbacks lost seven players to graduation and transfers, most notably former libero Okiana Valle, who captured the program record for the second most career digs (1,857) last season.
In the wake of those departures, several newcomers stepped up on opening weekend. Junior transfer Devyn Wheeler recorded a .727 hitting percentage along with her eight kills, making her the most efficient Razorback against Little Rock. Freshman Maggie Cartwright also recorded her first career double-double against the Trojans with her 10 kills and 10 digs.
The star of the weekend, however, was freshman Jillian Gillen. In her first three collegiate matches, she made 48 kills herself, earning her the Most Valuable Player award for the Arkansas Classic and drew national attention when she was awarded the SEC Freshman of the Week honor Tuesday.
Gillen posted 13 kills against Northwestern State, becoming the first Arkansas player to rack up double-digit kills in her college debut. She followed that up the next night by recording 26 kills and 13 digs against Montana State. She is now one of only 22 Razorbacks in program history to accumulate 25 or more kills in one match.
Senior Rachel Rippee led the Hogs in assists with 65 over the weekend as she nears the No. 1 spot in career assists in program history. Including her numbers from the first three matches, Rippee is up to 4,146 assists. It will be tough to catch up to No. 1 Tina Rico, however, who made 5,886 assists during her time as a Hog from 1994-97.
The Razorbacks will travel to San Diego this week for the SDSU/USD Challenge hosted by San Diego State University. In addition to the hosts, who the Hogs will face Saturday, Arkansas will also match up against West Virginia on Thursday and the University of San Diego on Friday.
After facing Little Rock this past weekend, the Razorbacks will return to Barnhill Arena to face another in-state rival, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 10.