Dominant Underclass Middles

by Ashleigh Young

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Miami’s middle blockers have been dominant from the start of the 2020 season.

Watch Janice Leao and Lauren Tarnoff play and you’d think they were veterans, but Miami’s two starters are both underclassmen.

Leao, a sophomore, and Tarnoff, a true freshman, have combined for 78 kills and 28 blocks after four matches. The pair looks out for one another on the court and that has helped them succeed.

“We just help each other during everything,” Leao said. “If she’s off, I tell her what happened during that set, or if she missed something, I can tell her what I saw and she does the same for me.”

Having Leao’s guidance has helped Tarnoff early in her collegiate debut. The California native knows how important it is to keep working to keep her starting position.

“I know it comes with a lot of responsibility and I’m not taking it lightly,” Tarnoff said. “As a middle blocker, a lot of people will turn to you on the court because you’re in the middle. I just have to make sure that I keep a positive attitude and continue to try my best when I’m out there.”

Playing time at Miami comes with competition. The starting roles weren’t handed over to the pair. Every day in practice, the middles are working to continue improving and fighting to keep their spots in the rotation.

The competition in the middle is making both Leao and Tarnoff better players and their effort in practice isn’t missed by head coach Jose “Keno” Gandara.

“Our middles are putting in the work with [setter] Savannah [Vach] and compete amongst each other during the week and it’s really paying off,” Gandara said. “They understand that when they are available and an option for Savannah, our offense is significantly more efficient. It just makes everyone better and that’s important to them.”

Leao’s development from a season ago is visible to everyone, including the New Bedford, Mass., native herself. Elevated self-confidence and having one season with the Canes has helped in her productivity on the court.

“I definitely have noticed an improvement from where I was,” Leao said. “My connection with Sav is better and that’s something we’re always working on. We just have more energy as a team on the court this year, which is really good. I’m louder on the court this year. I’ve come out of my shell from freshman year and it’s better for me.”

Her energy has matched her work ethic and that has helped her grow as a player. That growth has helped Leao reveal the ability that Gandara and his staff always knew she had in her.

“Janice has matured so much as a volleyball player in the last year,” Gandara said. “She is as physical as any player in the conference and is starting to understand that she has the ability to be a top middle in the country. We see it every day in practice. She’s always watching film, gets connected to the task and puts in the work. She’s awesome.”

Leao had a breakout weekend in Miami’s recent two-match sweep over Wake Forest. In the first 3-1 win, Leao tied Miami’s second-best hitting percentage in a single match at .650. The 6-foot-3 sophomore finished the weekend hitting .595, recording 29 kills, zero errors and 11 blocks.

While Leao continues to climb toward success, Tarnoff shows no signs of slowing down either. The 6-foot-2 freshman boasts Miami’s second-best hitting percentage at .412 – ranking only behind Leao’s .450 – and has totaled 36 kills and nine blocks.

The nerves are gone and it’s all about competing for the Huntington, Calif., native. Tarnoff believes the confidence she shares with Leao allows the pair to be successful together and for the team.

“We both have a lot of confidence on the court and getting all the reps in practice allows us to have that confidence,” Tarnoff said. “We connect really well together and with Sav, and she really heightens our confidence. Right now, it seems we’re pretty unstoppable when we get in our rhythm.”

A condensed preseason hasn’t slowed Tarnoff down in her early collegiate matches. Despite being a true freshman, she plays like a veteran and had adjusted quickly to playing college volleyball.

“Lauren has great vision and understanding of the game,” Gandara said. “She came in prepared physically and just went to work. As she adapts to the speed of the collegiate game, her game just keeps expanding. She makes plays that don’t show up on the stat sheet that make us better.”

The middles face their final road matches of the 2020 season this week, traveling to Clemson for matches on Thursday night and Friday afternoon. Miami will face Clemson for the  28th time in program history. The Canes hold a 14-13 advantage, but are looking for their first win against the Tigers since 2017.

Adding to the challenge of the road trip, Miami will have no film of the Tigers to study. Like Wake Forest a week ago, Clemson will open its 2020 season against the Hurricanes.

But that doesn’t seem to faze either middle. They are ready to play their game and do what they’ve been doing all season – compete.