BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – When the Indiana University Kokomo varsity athletic program launched in 2011, not many envisioned one of its teams becoming a national power in five short years. IUK is a commuter school with little scholarship money, but that didn’t stop Heather Hayes from thinking big. Now in her third year as the volleyball head coach, Hayes and her Cougars have surpassed all expectations and earned its first berth in the 36-team NAIA National Volleyball Championship – and in the process dominated the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference as regular season and post-season tournament champions.
“I enjoyed the challenge of building the program,” said Hayes of her expectations when she arrived in 2013. “My goal was to build a program that would be a name that would be mentioned as a contender for the conference title every year and experience a national tournament once in a while. I didn’t think in three years’ time we would be there. To be realistic, I thought I would be happy if we turned it around to where we were having winning seasons – just showing improvement each year. I didn’t expect us to be at the top of the conference so quickly. I thought baby steps; I thought the process would take longer. I am pleasantly surprised.”
But Hayes and the Cougars are at the top, and after securing its NAIA bid with its regular season title, the Cougars were determined not to let that success affect its play in the KIAC tourney – they wanted the dual championship. Playing at the University of Rio Grande in Ohio, IUK shrugged off a pair of late season losses and won matches against Brescia, IU Southeast and Point Park to secure the school’s first conference tourney title.
“One of the biggest joys I ever get out of coaching is to see my players experience a moment like they did; that is the rush I get,” said Hayes, who was named the KIAC Coach of the Year for the second consecutive season. “It is very rewarding to see their hard work pay off.”
“We could have shrugged and said, ‘we have already made the national tournament.’ But we didn’t, we wanted to win both the regular season and tournament,” said senior Rachel Allen. “It is pretty awesome.”
Like Allen, senior Cortney Hanson played on the second IUK team that finished 9-25. Despite nearly transferring, she and Allen decided to stick it out and now they are reaping the benefits.
“Going into the tournament, I think we were kind of nervous,” said Hanson, who was named All-KIAC Second Team. “I think this team, this year, we set goals and worked our butts off at practice. We have met every single one of our goals so far. I can’t describe it. It is amazing to work with a group of girls who want something so bad that they work to get it.”
After cruising to a 3-0 victory over Brescia University in the opening round (25-17, 25-14, 25-15), the Cougars returned the next day and found themselves down 2-0 to IU Southeast.
“I don’t know how to explain it; IU Southeast had a great game plan against us,” said Hayes of the slow start. “They were undersized compared to our blockers, and it caught us off guard.”
But Kokomo regrouped, adjusted its lineup to put more height at the net, and grabbed set three before winning the match 3-2 (20-25, 22-25, 25-14, 25-18, 15-10).
“We weren’t running our offense like we should have been,” said Hanson. “In that third game we sped the offense up and our serving got a lot better. We played with a chip on our shoulder because we didn’t want to lose.”
Lexi Brickner led the Cougars in kills with 14 and had two blocks. Lindi Thomas had 21 digs, eight kills, four blocks and a pair of service aces. Kaleigh Ensley had 33 digs while Allen added 24. Hanson had 22 digs and 20 assists while Casey Colgate had 15 assists and five kills. Keeana Walton led IUK in blocks with seven.
“Our team chemistry is awesome,” said Allen. “We know we are a good team. Once we got playing together, we were unbeatable. It is about who is going to come out ready and more focused. It is mental and we had more energy.”
The championship match pitted the Cougars against the pre-season KIAC Coaches Poll favorite Point Park University (IUK was picked to finish third). Again, Kokomo found itself in a hole after dropping the first set only to regroup and cruise to a 3-1 win (14-25, 25-13, 25-17, 25-20).
“I looked at Nicole Sandmann and said, ‘this is so embarrassing.’ So we put the chip back on our shoulders,” said Hanson of the Cougars falling behind 1-0. “After the match, I got a little teary-eyed. I can’t put into words how excited we were – it was an amazing feeling.”
Walton led the Cougars in kills and blocks with nine and six, respectively. Nicole Sandmann had eight kills, Thomas had eight kills and 14 digs, Ensley put in 21 digs, Colgate added 17 digs and 15 assists and Hanson led the team with 18 assists.
“We had three goals this season: win the regular season, win the conference tournament and make the national tournament. We have done all of that,” said Hayes. “It has been a great ride this season. It is a good day for our program.”
Following the tournament, the Cougars (34-4) garnered several post-season accolades in addition to Hayes being named the top coach. Sandmann and Thomas were named All-KIAC First Team while Hanson earned Second Team honors. Sandmann also continued the IUK tradition of winning the KIAC Newcomer of the Year award. She is the third consecutive Cougar to earn the honor – Thomas won in 2014 and Micayla Speidel in 2013. Allen earned a KIAC Champions of Character award for her on-court and off-court presence.
“I have always tried to be a vocal leader on the court and doing a lot for the team,” said Allen. “It meant a lot to me, but I couldn’t do that without my team and my coaches. It was nice they voted for me.”
Point Park earned the the KIAC’s second automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship. With Kokomo winning both the regular season and tournament titles, the tourney runner-up received the second national bid from the conference.
Kokomo will be back in action in the NAIA National Volleyball Championship, traveling to Madonna University on Nov. 21 at noon. But whatever the outcome, this has been a spectacular season for the Cougars – one that will force the school to build its first athletic trophy case.