This article originally appeared in the Oct. 3 edition of the Army Football Game Day vs. Tulane
By Tracy Nelson
Volleyball setters do most of the work and get a fraction of the glory. But it's a role that senior Maureen Bannon has relished since her arrival at West Point in 2006.
Although it's the big-time hitters that typically garner much of the attention and grandeur, Bannon has managed to do well for herself in four seasons wearing the Black, Gold and Gray. A two-time Patriot League Setter of the Year, she has proven once again to be one of the league's top players in her final year at West Point. Lauded the Patriot League's top player for three of the last five weeks, she has been the catalyst behind the early success that a young, inexperienced Army team takes into this weekend's conference doubleheader at Lafayette and Lehigh, sporting a 14-3 record with conference wins over Bucknell and Colgate already under its belt.
A natural setter in every sense of the word, Bannon got her first sniff of volleyball in a fourth-grade physical education class. She started learning the basic fundamentals and quickly realized a talent and passion for a game that continues to be wildly popular in her home state of California. Bannon started playing organized volleyball on the club circuit a year later and grew up watching legends like Olympic gold medalists Misty May and Kerri Walsh play on sandy white beaches literally just blocks from her house.
With volleyball firmly entrenched in her system, Bannon was a standout on the Marymount High School varsity team in her hometown of Manhattan Beach, Calif. She also played year-round on the highly competitive Sports Shack club team out of Beverly Hills. Current Army head coach Alma Kovaci, who was then in her third year as an assistant on the Black Knights' staff, first saw Bannon at a tournament in Anaheim, Calif., and was instantly intrigued.
"I saw Maureen in two tournaments (Anaheim and Reno, Nev.) and I immediately loved what she brought to the game," Kovaci recalled. "The first thing that drew me into watching her play was her feistiness. I remember thinking ‘this little kid can play.' She loved the game and played her heart out. It was the same Maureen that you see on the court today."
One of the elite club teams in the area that perennially graduates some of the top seniors in the country, Sports Shack ran a standard 6-2 offense which featured Bannon setting from the back row and hitting when she rotated through the front. She had also honed an effective jump serve, broadening both her game and impression on Kovaci. The aspiring young coach corresponded with Bannon over the course of her junior year, which eventually included a visit to West Point.
Bannon paid unofficial visits to both Army and Navy during her junior year in high school, and the decision couldn't have been easier.
"I loved Annapolis," she recalled. "It's such a pretty place, but I didn't feel the connection that I felt when I came to West Point. It's not home in California, but we're a family here and it feels like home to me."
After making the decision to attend West Point, Bannon withdrew applications to Washington & Lee, Navy, Santa Clara, Iowa and Virginia Tech to name a few. With the support of her parents, Steve Bannon and Cathleen Jordan, she traded the sun and beach for picturesque mountains and the Hudson River. Despite the nearly 3,000 miles separating New York and California, Bannon's father has never missed a match - home or away - during Bannon's decorated Army career. Her mother is not far behind that feat, flying east for every match that she can.
"It's such a comforting feeling having my parents there," Bannon said. "Whether I'm on the road or in Gillis Field House, my dad is always there. There's a feeling that somebody is always behind me, whether I'm having a great match or struggling through a rough one."
Growing up in a split-family environment, along with a job that required her father to travel much of the time, Bannon rarely saw her dad on a regular basis. He's made up for it, however, cheering on his daughter and supporting the Black Knights' program in over 100 matches in less than four years. A writer and producer of documentaries on a host of topics, Steve recently wrapped-up a role as executive producer on "The Chaos Experiment," which was released in 2009 and starred Val Kilmer. He has traveled to Korea and back numerous times this season, simply to catch his daughter's team in action.
"My dad was gone a lot when I was younger, traveling all over the world for work," Bannon said. "But he's more than making up for it now. He's always there in my corner."
Bannon acquired another strong male figure in her life when she played for then-head coach Glen Conley in her first season at Army. It took just four matches for Conley to appoint Bannon the starting setter and she has shined ever since. Lauded the 2006 Patriot League Rookie of the Year and Co-Setter of the Year, Bannon's slender 5-10 frame, soft hands and quick feet quickly became well known around the conference. A five-time conference Rookie of the Week honoree, she was the only freshman to garner all-conference status with placement on the second team. When Conley left at the end of the 2006 season to take over the head coaching duties at Kent State, Kovaci took the Army reigns and inherited a team oozing with talent, including the highly touted setter.
In three years, Bannon has never ranked lower than third in the Patriot League for assists per set. Repeating as Setter of the Year as a sophomore in 2007, she led the conference in assists for the second year in a row. Her junior season saw Bannon garner first-team All-Patriot League honors for the first time, while also finishing 39th in the nation with 10.79 assists per game. She continues to tighten her grip around Army's career assists-per-set record heading into the final act of her senior season.
"Doing well statistically in the league is great, but it's more important for me to have my hitters in the top-10," Bannon said. "It's always a goal of mine for them to enjoy success. If I am among the leaders as well, it's just a bonus. As long as they are hitting well and getting the kind of sets they need, that's all that matters."
Four of Bannon's hitters landed in the top-10 in the kills-per-set category last fall. This season, freshman Ariana Mankus has burst on the scene, ranking second among the league's leaders with 3.46 kills per set.
The 2008 Black Knights posted a 24-5 mark on their way to the winningest single season in program history while also earning a share of the Patriot League regular-season crown. A team loaded with experienced veterans, including recent graduates Elizabeth Lazzari, Briana Stremick, Rachael Breinling and Jamie Clark, Bannon had plenty of targets to choose from. The 2009 season opened with a different tone and an entirely new group of hitters, leaving Bannon to run the show under a microscope of question marks and uncertainties. Could the team sustain such a high level of play? Would it live up to lofty expectations?
According to Bannon, the answer is a simple "yes."
"I am completely confident that this year's team can make it all the way," Bannon said. "There's just a different feeling than in years past. The conference is going to be competitive again, but I certainly think that we have more than a good shot. We just have to take it one match at a time."
"Maureen has a quiet strength and confidence about her, which are qualities that ever setter wants to have," described Kovaci. "She has an innate ability to keep the team focused when they are rattled and instills confidence in our younger hitters. She is a true leader through her actions, but also has become much more of a vocal leader on the court this year. When the team needs that spark, Maureen provides it. She is enjoying this young team. I've seen more emotions pour out of her this year than ever before."
Predicted to finish third in the Patriot League preseason poll, the Black Knights' early success has raised the eyebrows of many in the volleyball world. This youthful bunch, which features two freshmen in the starting lineup, produced the most prolific win in program history when it shocked 19th-ranked Pepperdine on Sept. 12 in Malibu, Calif.
"When I was growing up, Pepperdine was always one of those incredibly successful California teams, so to come in as the underdog and totally shock everyone felt amazing," Bannon said. "This year's team has a new-found energy and everything really came together during that match. I think we learned a lot about ourselves and what we could really accomplish as a team during that match. We stayed mentally tough in a hostile environment, which is something we'll have to do throughout this season."
That same energy carried Army throughout the non-conference season, which culminated in the Black Knights also taking the title the following weekend at the West Point Challenge. Bannon averaged just under 11 assists per set during an unblemished 4-0 run for the Black Knights, which included wins over Quinnipiac (3-0), Iowa (3-1), Morgan State (3-0) and culminated in a thrilling 3-2 triumph against Binghamton that kept the squad undefeated in five-set matches (5-0) this year. Bannon picked up her third all-tournament nod of the year, while adding a Most Valuable Player award to her ever-growing collection of hardware.
"Maureen's play in at the West Point Challenge spoke volumes about the caliber of player that she is," Kovaci said. "She's the quarterback of our team in every sense of the word. She carries the offense, which has been a key since the bulk of our hitters had very little experience, if any at all, coming into this year. Having an experienced setter like Maureen in combination with young, eager hitters is the best scenario that you could possibly have in my mind. They are creating great chemistry right now and it's wonderful to watch it unfold with every passing match."
As Bannon's senior season moves forward, her name continues to rise in the Patriot League record books. Known in recent years for producing standout setters, Bannon has continued the Army legacy by climbing four spots this season alone to seventh in Patriot League history with 3,764 assists to date. Bannon is one of four Black Knight setters to rank in the top-10 on a list that includes one of her biggest role models, Abby Casciato, who graduated from Army in 2005 ranked third.
"I came here the year after Abby's graduation, so I had some very large shoes to fill," Bannon said. "She set the bar so high, but it's given me something to strive towards. Army has had some amazing setters in the past, and it's an honor to be listed among them. I hope that someday down the road another Army setter is chasing my numbers, which would mean that the program is continuing to grow and improve."
Although she has thought about the future and the opportunity to play for the All-Army Team down the road, the Sociology major is focused solely on the next two months. With the possibility of capping her career with Army's first Patriot League title since 1994 looming brighter and closer, Bannon would like nothing more than to put the exclamation point of a trip to the NCAA Tournament on her time here.
"This is a special team," Kovaci said. "They have the spark and are firing on all cylinders. They have more emotion than any team that I've coached and a lot of that derives from Maureen's example. We're having a blast and I just hope it continues deep into November so that Maureen and her classmates can reap the rewards that they have worked so hard to achieve."
With Bannon firmly on the court, the Black Knights just might be set up for success in 2009. Only time will tell.
Tracy Nelson is an Assistant Director for Athletic Communications at West Point.