Achieving greatness is not easy. We all aspire to touch greatness and everyone wants to leave a legacy that is everlasting.
Well after winning the American Mid-East Conference tournament title over Mount Vernon Nazarene University in three sets (25-14, 27-25, 25-16) on Saturday Nov. 13 the Pioneers’ goals and dreams are realized, leaving a legacy matched by no one.
[pullquote]“I think we are all still on cloud nine,” said senior Emily Beiting.[/pullquote]
The title marks a lot of firsts for the Pioneers in school history. With the win, the team earns its first appearance in the NAIA National Championships in school history. Also, while the Pioneers won the AMC regular season title in 2000 and 2001, this is the first time they have ever won the AMC tournament title.
“What an awesome way to book end our career as an NAIA institution,” said head coach Tanya Hockman. “I go right back to the beginning of the season when I talked to the seniors, the very first night we checked in, and I said ‘this is our last year competing in the NAIA and we have never made postseason. I think we ought to do that.’”
They did win but it was not easy or a piece of cake as it came against two admirable foes in Mt. Vernon and Walsh University.
Up until this tournament, these two teams had the Pioneers number because these ladies had lost all four regular season matches to Mt. Vernon and Walsh in either four or five-set losses.
This time the difference was a shift in mindset. These ladies went into their matches Saturday having the confidence that they could avenge those earlier losses and beat these teams.
“We wanted to win and we had no fear going into it,” said senior Jennifer Gahagan. “There wasn’t any mental block like there usually is, we did not second guess ourselves and we played as a team. Everyone contributed.”
“I think it was a lot of mindset and belief,” Beiting said. “It is kind of a head game with us because they are always going to be our top competitors, our big rivals. In the other four games we struggled to keep the fun in it but we went out there and just had a lot of fun. We probably all played really close to our full potential.”
While the Pioneers easily rolled over Mt. Vernon, they had a tougher time in their three-set victory (29-27, 25-21, 35-33) over Walsh, particularly in the third set thriller.
According to Hockman, somewhere around the mid-twenties both coaches used up all their timeouts in that epic third set. This left the coaches admonishing strong effort and just letting their athletes play out this crazy third set.
To add to the drama, the Pioneers had 10 match point opportunities during the set. The Cavaliers, though, never had a chance to close out the match as they were continually able to tie it but never able to take the lead.
Hockman, helpless without any timeouts, stood there amidst the intensity of the match asking herself
[pullquote]“how many more opportunities are we going to get?”[/pullquote]
When senior Lori Hale, who ripped 15 kills with 19 digs in the match, finally gave the Pioneers the victory the feeling was relief more than anything.
During the third set drama, Hockman said her athletes stayed calm and composed the whole time. She credits her team’s ability to keep their cool under the pressure to them being in 14 five-set matches this year.
“I think we have been in so many tight matches all year long,” Hockman said. “I never once saw us wavering in our confidence and I think that being battle-tested really helped us. It was definitely really familiar territory for us.”
In both matches Saturday, the critical factor that won the match for these ladies was their ability to come back from second set deficits.
Mt. Vernon and Walsh had been leading late in the second set and Hockman believes catching them in what she calls “the green zone” (the last five points of the set) was ultimately what won those matches.
“I think that really ended up breaking the back of both of them when we took the lead in that green zone,” Hockman said. “To catch them and then surpass them must have been demoralizing to them and I think they felt like if they could just hold on and tie it 1-1 it was a new game but they just couldn’t pull it off.”
If there was one player who took their game to another level over the weekend, Hockman said it was sophomore Hannah Haver. While her stats and offense may be impressive it was her defense and tenacious play that was so out of this world good.
“Her defense was phenomenal,” Hockman said. “Her effort and her ability to keep us in rallies just gave us so much confidence. It really was a team effort, no question about it, but if there was one player I was saying ‘wow!’…it was Hannah. She played amazing.”
The week leading up to the tournament, Hockman said she was feeling “discouraged.” She said she did not know whether it was stress or physical illness, because a bug had been going around, but she felt her team was flat in practice. Therefore, when they won in such dominating fashion it was a little surprising.
“The seniors and I talked after our last practice on Friday and they assured me they were really ready to play,” Hockman said. “For me, the most shocking part of it was that we could practice so poorly and turn in such an unbelievably dominant performance on the weekend.”
With this tournament title and berth into the NAIA National Championships, this team and this senior class is now technically the greatest that Malone volleyball has ever seen. This win has cemented their place in Malone history and left a legacy that is bar none to anyone else in volleyball history.
“They (the seniors) have got to smile and say we have put our thumbprint on the program,” Hockman said. “They have left their mark and that has got to be very exciting for them as a group of four to say we have left a mark on this program that nobody can take away. We will always be the first to accomplish this feat.”
It is not only Hockman who feels overjoyed for the seniors but the underclassmen are happy as well for their seniors.
“I know all of us younglings are really happy for our seniors,” Haver said. “We love all of them and the thing is we are going to be really sad when it is over. We are glad that they get to go to this (the NAIA National Championships) and we get to be a part of it because it is a real privilege.”
Looking ahead, the Pioneers will take on NAIA #13 Indiana Tech in Indiana on Saturday Nov.20 in their opening round NAIA National Championship match.
Earlier his season they beat Indiana Tech in five-sets (25-20, 19-25, 18-25, 25-18, 15-11) and believe if they play like they did in the AMC tournament they can beat anybody.
[pullquote]“I believe if we have a performance that rivals or is similar to this last weekend, then we can compete with just about anybody,” Hockman said. “I think if our defense plays as well as this past weekend then we can win.[/pullquote]”
Chris Sherwood is sports editor and contributing writer for The Aviso.