9/2/22 Utah, Ali Hornung digs the ball

Sophomore defensive specialist Ali Hornung extends her arms to counteract a spike from a Utah hitter. Hornung had six digs during the match.

No. 9 Purdue volleyball is undefeated through six games at the start of the season.

Its two tournament sweeps featured breakout performances from a group seeing its first major playing time at the collegiate level.

Of the Boilermakers’ opening lineup, five of the six have already started in more matches than they did last season. Two of those players, freshman outside hitter Eva Hudson and senior libero Maddie Schermerhorn, were just named Big Ten Freshman Player of the Week and Big Ten Defensive Player of the week, respectively.

Hudson is two-for-two on that award so far, a consequence of an explosive start to the season. She’s averaged 4.36 kills per set, hit .315 on 235 attacks, surpassing another career high in kills Saturday with 21 against Milwaukee.

Shondell said he and his coaching staff knew they “hit the jackpot” when they recruited her, comparing her presence on the court to that of Purdue basketball alumnus Robbie Hummel.

“She’s such a glue type of a person on this team,” Shondell said. “She can do everything and she makes other people better on the floor.”

Hudson has played in every set this season, leading the team in points and claiming second in service aces. The freshman said she plays into the seniors’ energy and credits it as one of the main factors that keeps the team focused in high-pressure situations.

“We have such a great senior presence,” Hudson said. “They really bring the group together and the culture together and I think that’s really allowed me to come out of my shell and not be as nervous. Especially as a freshman coming in, it’s been great.”

Schermerhorn, the other recipient of this week’s conference accolades, is one of those grounding presences. She is playing at libero for the first time in her volleyball career. Schermerhorn mostly came off the bench her first three seasons, contributing 1.42 digs per set in both her sophomore and junior years.

This year, she’s bumped that up to 4.6 digs per set, good enough for second in the Big Ten.

“She’s become our leader on the team and on the floor,” Shondell said. “She’s everything (we) want right now, and I think she’ll continue to get better, because she’s going to get a lot more experience in that position.”

Shondell has repeatedly pointed to his team’s defensive specialists as one of their strongest and most reliable areas. The back row claims a number of experienced players including senior Ava Torrance, sophomore Ali Hornung and junior Emily Brown, a transfer from Mizzou.

“The best thing we’re doing right now is handling the ball,” Shondell said. “Our four defensive players and passers are just doing a terrific job, and that’s what has allowed us to be sitting in this (6-0) situation right now.”

He said the four back-row players made the setters’ lives easier knowing they’re going to “be delivered a good ball.” One area the setters are working to improve is the “connection with the hitters,” Shondell said, noting it might take some time because of the players’ new situation.

Last season, sophomore middle blocker Raven Colvin was ranked eighth in the Big Ten for total blocks and claimed the second best hitting efficiency among conference freshmen.

Head coach Dave Shondell said this year, her mentality has shifted to “that of a veteran’s,” and he thinks she will be “one of the best blockers in the league.”

“She’s such an intense competitor, she wants to win and she wants to be the best at whatever she is doing,” Shondell said. “She brings this air of confidence to our team, which she didn’t have as much of last year. But that’s important with a new group, to have somebody that really knows what’s going on and will hold other people accountable.”

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