IU Kokomo junior libero Kaleigh Ensley. (SJ Photo/Slater Young)
BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – One more win. Only one win separates the Indiana University Kokomo women’s volleyball team and the school’s first-ever berth in a national tournament. Last Saturday at the Cougar Gym, IUK knocked off two conference foes to improve to 10-0 in Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference play, and in the process, moved to within one contest of clinching the regular season title – something no Cougar’s team has ever done.
IU Kokomo started the Saturday afternoon tri-match with a 3-1 victory (25-10, 25-15, 23-25, 25-8) over Rio Grande University and closed the day with a 3-0 win (25-9, 25-12, 25-18) over Carlow University to improve to 29-2 on the season. The 29 wins are a new school record, as is the current 19-match win streak. The Cougars can clinch the regular season title and an automatic berth in the 2015 NAIA Volleyball National Championships with a victory over IU East in Richmond on Thursday night.
“We had a great weekend,” said Cougars head coach Heather Hayes. “The Taylor match that we played (on October 23) took a lot out of us, so I was worried about our fatigue going into our two conference matches today. We came in ready to play and earned two more conference victories.”
KIAC Sports Information Director Kevin Taylor explained that the conference has two berths into the national tournament this year. The KIAC only had one last year.
“Since the KIAC added two schools and both play volleyball, it bumped the number of volleyball teams in the conference to 13,” said Taylor. “The NAIA awards automatic bids to the conferences for every six teams that you have in your conference. KIAC volleyball has two automatic bids to the NAIA national tournament this year; the first one will go to the regular season champion and the second will go to the KIAC Tournament champion.”
Against Rio Grande, Lexi Brickner led the Cougars attack with 13 kills while defending with four blocks. Lindi Thomas added 12 kills and 22 digs while serving up a trio of aces. Nicole Sandmann defended the net with six blocks and had nine kills on offense. Senior Rachel Allen and junior libero Kaleigh Ensley guarded the floor with 19 digs. Cortney Hanson led IU Kokomo with 24 assists, 17 digs and a pair of aces while Colgate added 18 assists.
Hanson, who serves as a team captain with Allen, joined the 800 Digs Club during the weekend games. She owns the school record in career assists with 2,791 and is third in career digs at 804. Ensley is second in career digs with 1,140.
“This team continues to be focused and driven towards reaching their team goals,” said Hayes, who now owns an 82-21 record in three season at IUK.
Thrilling comeback at Taylor
The night before the conference tri-match, the Cougars found themselves in a 2-0 hole before rallying for a 20-25, 23-25, 25-7, 25-21, 15-8 victory over Taylor University. The Trojan program is tough to beat – the squad is the second-winningest in NAIA history with 1,176 victories through the 2014 season.
“What a great win,” exclaimed Hayes. “I am so proud of our determination and heart. That was a huge team win to come from behind against a quality opponent. In my three years, I don’t think we have ever had a more complete team win.”
The Cougars are earning respect on the national level. Not only are they earning points in the national NAIA poll but they rank in the top 50 in the nation in several team categories: No. 25 in total service aces (190), No. 34 in total digs (1,763), No. 40 in digs per game (16.480), No. 41 in service aces per game (1.780) and No. 46 in total blocks (204). Individually, Sandmann is No. 25 in the NAIA with 1.110 blocks per game and No. 46 in hitting percentage (.303) while Thomas is No. 36 (45) and Hanson is No. 43 (43) in total service aces
After the IU East game, the Cougars travel to West Virginia Tech on October 30 to close out conference play. They return to the friendly confines of Cougar Gym on November 4 for a 7 p.m. match against Huntington University and end the season with a 1 p.m. home match against Calumet College of St. Joseph on November 7.
KIAC volleyball standings (through October 25)
1. IU Kokomo 10-0 (two conference games left)
2. Asbury 7-1
3. IU Southeast 8-2
4. IU East 7-2
5. Point Park 7-2
6. Rio Grande 5-4
7. Brescia 5-7
8. Ohio Christian 5-7
9. Carlow 3-6
10. Cincinnati Christian 2-4
11. Midway 1-9
12. Alice Lloyd 0-7
13. West Virginia Tech 0-9.