Volleyball exceeds expectations in extraordinary 2011

 

After perhaps the greatest year in Pioneer volleyball history, this year’s group has arguably followed through with a year just as special.

Freshman outside hitter Taylor Slauterbeck slams a kill into the teeth of Walsh's defense. Slauterbeck is one of the new faces that have filled the void left from last year's seniors and will need to be someone to step up her game in Hannah Haver's absence. (Photo courtesy of Andy Smith)

When the calendar turned to the 2011 fall season, volleyball entered it a much different team than the one who accomplished the historic NAIA National qualifying, AMC Conference Champion, 33-10 year last fall.

Right off the bat the team lost four talented players, including NAIA All-American Honorable Mention Jennifer Gahagan and head coach Tanya Hockman’s long-time assistant coach Rafael Gonzalez.

As if that were not enough adversity, Hockman said she also wanted to thoroughly prepare her team for the transition into NCAA, so she scheduled a rather difficult schedule, including having only 7 of 38 regular season matches at home.

Even she admitted that she had concerns at the beginning of the year when looking at the competition her young team had to play.

“Initially, on the outside, when I was looking at our schedule I thought that I had probably scheduled too hard,” Hockman said. “Too much really hard competition for as young as we were going to be.”

Despite all of the hurdles in front of this team, they have come out on the other end better than expected with a 29-11 record and a little surprised by the results.

“I thought we were going to lose all the time, basically,” said junior middle hitter Diana Wallace. “We made position switches at the time (the beginning of the year) that didn’t seem good but they’ve worked out in our benefit.”

Accomplishments

This group of Pioneer women has certainly accomplished a lot of incredible feats on their way to that remarkable .725 winning percentage.

[pullquote]They never collapsed on me mentally,” Hockman said. “They got frustrated, but they worked through it. They are just a resilient group, they really are.” [/pullquote]

Some of the highlights include winning 16 of 18 matches after starting the year 3-5, defeating an incredibly talented NAIA #12 Biola University (CA) in California in a three set domination, winning the NCCAA East Region Championship for the second time ever, the first time since 2000, to automatically qualify for Christian Nationals and most notably pulling off one of the greatest home victories in Pioneer history against arch rival Walsh University a few weeks ago in four sets.

To Hockman, defeating Biola in such a dominant fashion was particularly important for her team because it was the turning point of their season.

“There is no question that when we played Biola and we beat them 25-15, 25-20 and 25-23 when they had a lead in third set and overtook them and won it, that it absolutely sparked that fire in them that said ‘oh my goodness we can do this,’” Hockman said.

Naturally, what follows amazing achievement is a boatload of awards and certainly this special group is no exception.

Some of the notable recognition that Pioneer volleyball was honored to receive from the NCCAA East Region is having senior outside hitter Megan Fisher and junior setter Jackie Schwamberger voted Co-Players of the Year and having coach Hockman voted as Coach of the Year.

Senior Megan Fisher shares some laughs with her teammates during warmups before senior night's victory against Walsh University. Hockman said she is extremely proud of how well Fisher has handled the responsibility of being the lone senior. (Photo courtesy of Andy Smith)

With all of the adversity this team had to face, few would have expected the team to accomplish all of these superlative achievements. It has been a whirlwind of a ride so far.

“The season has gone incredibly fast and remarkably good,” Hockman said.

What has worked?

Obviously, for the Pioneers to be in this position near the end of 2011 a lot has gone well. They may not have the most talent but that definitely does not mean they won all those games with magic or tricks; instead, it was with a lot of heart and willpower.

“I feel like this year has taught me that the team with the most talent doesn’t always win the games,” Schwamberger said. “Our team has a lot of heart and we want to win. I mean, that is why we have been successful this year: not because we have the tallest girls or the best blockers, but we just want to win.”

According to Hockman, this group has done extremely well with making teamwork a priority and she believes their best attribute is their mental fortitude.

“They have been resilient and when they have fallen off the horse they have gotten right back on,” Hockman said.

Hockman said an example of their never say die attitude was best exemplified in a place where few would even notice: practice.

[pullquote]I thought we were going to lose all the time, basically,” said junior middle hitter Diana Wallace. “We made position switches at the time (the beginning of the year) that didn’t seem good, but they’ve worked out in our benefit.”[/pullquote]

There is a certain drill, exchange in a row, that she makes her teams go through a few times each fall. According to her, it is a complicated drill that tests all areas of a team’s game and is an exhausting exercise on a mental, physical and emotional level.

Some teams take more time to accomplish the goal Hockman has and some take less. This squad required an hour and a half one time—an entire practice—to complete it.

She said the time they did it in was not special, comparatively to past teams, but how they completed the drill was mind-boggling because she has never seen a team do it like they did.

“They never collapsed on me mentally,” Hockman said. “They got frustrated, but they worked through it. They are just a resilient group, they really are.”

Star players

Of course, the reason this team has won so many games is not because of individuals but because of the entire team, but there are a few who have stood out in 2011.

The lone senior and co-player of the year Fisher has certainly taken her game to another level this year. She particularly has filled the void left from lost seniors of being a force in the offensive area with 3.1 kills per set and 451 total kills.

“I think Megan Fisher has handled the burden of our offense incredibly well,” Hockman said. “Megan has taken on that responsibility of filling a lot of the holes that left.”

Fisher obviously has handled the burden of being the lone senior very well and if she is the ignitor of the offense, then her fellow co-player of the year Schwamberger is the engine. She is the glue that makes it all work.

Junior setter Jackie Schwamberger leaps in front of the net to set up a potential kill in the epic victory against the rival Cavaliers. To Hockman, Schwamberger is one of the "best floor generals" any team could hope to possess. (Photo courtesy of Andy Smith)

For good reason Hockman said “she is one of the best floor generals around” because she manages the Pioneer offense nearly to perfection. She incredibly has a total of 1,320 assists and averages 9.5 per set.

However, much like a point guard in basketball or lineman in football, the setter in volleyball sometimes doesn’t get enough credit for doing a phenomenal job.

“She probably doesn’t get enough ‘atta girls,’ but she is a huge piece to our puzzle, without question,” Hockman said.

Another player who has been essential to Pioneer success is Wallace. According to Hockman, she has been their ace in the hole.

“Certainly an X-factor for us has been Diana Wallace, who had very limited playing time for her first two years, came back from injury and has absolutely knocked it out of the park,” Hockman said.

Looking forward and unfortunate injury news

As the winter season approaches us, there is only one significant tournament left for the Pioneers. From Dec. 1-3 this group will compete in the NCCAA National Tournament in Kissimmee, Fla.

According to Hockman, the Pioneers have been to Christian Nationals on numerous occasions in the past but have never been able to get further than the semifinal match. In fact, no volleyball team in Pioneer history has ever made it to the final match.

If this group could somehow find a way to that final match and win it all then Hockman said that would definitely be this team’s crowing achievement.

It will not be easy, however, to achieve such a feat and the Pioneers are well aware of that fact.

Junior middle hitter Hannah Haver prepares herself for a serve to be delivered by Cedarville in a match earlier this fall. In all of her games this fall Haver had to wear a protective knee brace on her right knee because she had complete reconstructive ACL surgery on it last spring. After this latest injury, she will need surgery on her other knee as well to repair a torn ligament. (Photo courtesy of Andy Smith)

“I definitely think we can’t go in expecting that we are going to win because there is going to be better competition than usual,” Wallace said. “But if we play as a team then we definitely have a good chance of winning.”

Unfortunately, one of the key cogs of this team will not be participating in Christian Nationals. Recently, junior middle hitter Hannah Haver injured her non-brace knee on Nov. 5 in a collision with an opponent.

According to Hockman, Haver will need surgery on her left knee to repair either a torn ACL or MCL. It will be her second surgery in as many years as she had reconstructive ACL surgery after the season last fall on her other knee. The surgery is scheduled for mid-December.

Competing in the NCCAA Nationals without Haver maybe the greatest challenge the Pioneers have faced so far this season.

Over the past two years Haver has been an integral part of the Pioneer’s offense and adjusting to her loss will be quite a challenge as the team will need to play some players out of position.

“We are going to try and reinvent us while Hannah is out,” Hockman said. “We are just going to have to see how the pieces fit together. It will be a new challenge for us, and perhaps that is a good thing. And we are going to have to have people step up and play really big.”

Either way, no matter how the rest of the season plays out Hockman certainly is proud of the special year these girls have delivered.

“From a coaching standpoint I’m saying ‘two thumbs up, great job ladies’ and we still have work to do but I’m very pleased,” Hockman said.

The final tournament of the season for the Pioneers will come at the beginning of December when volleyball travels to Florida to compete in the NCCAA National Tournament.

Chris Sherwood is sports editor for Aviso AVW.

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