Is this the greatest Malone volleyball team ever?
After their upset win over NAIA #13 Indiana Tech in four-sets (25-22, 23-25, 27-25, 25-22) on Saturday Nov. 20, these women are undoubtedly the most accomplished team in Pioneer history.
To go along with winning the American Mid-East Conference tournament title last weekend, the Pioneers are now the only volleyball team to participate in and win a NAIA postseason match and will remain so because of the university’s transition to NCAA Division II.
“For us, winning last week was overcoming a mental hurdle,” said head coach Tanya Hockman. “This week was putting a stamp of validity on our work for the season and saying we really do belong to be here.”
Maybe what this team does better than any other team is keep their cool under intense pressure because they are so adept to it.
Hockman said the experience of playing in 14 five-set matches this season has really helped the Pioneers. This team knows what it feels like to be in those tight critical matches and that experience under pressure showed in Saturday’s victory.
“We never had a sense of panic or feeling that we weren’t in control of that match,” Hockman said. “I think there was this underlying sense of ‘we have been here, seen you before and we are used to the pressure’ and so we never got out of our element mentally.”
According to Hockman, the players who particularly stood out for the Pioneers were seniors Tabitha Streby and Jennifer Gahagan.
Streby, Malone volleyball’s NAIA Champion of Character award representative, stood out for her incredibly aggressive serving and Gahagan was noticed for her strong offense as she ripped 21 kills against a tall Indiana Tech defensive line.
In the upset, the Pioneers played the typical underdog role as they went into the game with nothing to lose.
“We were in a win-win situation because we weren’t expected to win and there was no pressure on us,” Hockman said. “So we had the freedom to go play the game without expectation.”
To still be playing meaningful games at this point in the year is remarkable and something each volleyball team around the nation dreams about.
“It is a dream come true,” said senior Lori Gale. “It is the same as when you are in high school as you look forward to state and then when you get to college you look forward to the national level. Every team, every athlete always dreams about it.”
With the win, this team is arguably the greatest Pioneer volleyball team in history. There is no disputing against what this team has accomplished over the last several weeks, including the fact that last Wednesday afternoon eight athletes were recognized with All-AMC honors.
[pullquote]“I can’t ever remember, in my 12 years, having eight people getting this kind of honor,” Hockman said. [/pullquote]
All of these All-AMC honors are even more significant when you consider the fact that coaches can’t vote for their own players. Therefore, as Hockman said, there was recognition from people in the conference that Malone is a team getting a lot of contribution from all facets of the game.
More than anything, the aspect that has helped and will continue to help these ladies is their unity.
“From this point forward everybody that is going to look at our roster is going to ask ‘what is exceptional about them?’ and I think the thing that separates us is our ability to be a team and to trust each other,” Hockman said.
This is not a team full of headliners because it does not have one dominant player. However, it is truly a team that has a collection of star players who have gelled together extremely well.
“Our team really has great team chemistry,” said sophomore setter Jackie Schwamberger. “We just have fun with each other but it definitely involves a lot of hard work, too. We go out there, work hard and just really mesh well together.”
Hockman, coaching the Pioneers for the last 12 years, said that the difference in this team from other teams she has coached in the past is the fact that they “get it.”
“Every team that you coach you hope that they get it,” Hockman said. “You hope that they have that cohesiveness, that drive, that desire to win and sacrifice for each other. Perhaps this team gets the intangibles of the game better than other teams I have had.”
As for legacy, these last few weeks have been an amazing way to end the Pioneers’ stay in the NAIA and end the seniors’ collegiate careers.
“As a senior, it is an awesome way to go out because it is a goal we’ve had all four years,” Streby said.
Looking ahead, these ladies will be taking part in Malone volleyball’s first-ever NAIA National tournament in Sioux City, Iowa. Malone, along with 11 other first-round winners, will be joining the 12 other schools who had an opening-round bye in the 24-team tournament Nov. 30-Dec. 4.
The Pioneers, who improved to 33-7 with their upset win, were placed in pool D of the tournament where they will first take on NAIA #4 Northwestern (IA) College on Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 8:00 p.m. CST (9:00 p.m. EST).
“I think we have a very favorable pool,” Hockman said. “It is not an easy pool, but it is a little less demanding than I thought we would initially get.”
Right now, all the team is focused on is themselves as they look to continue their strong play in their pool.
“If we keep playing like we have been I don’t care who you put on the other side of the net,” Gale said. “I think we can do very well against them if we just do what God has given us the ability to do.”
Chris Sherwood is sports editor and contributing writer for The Aviso.