BY DEAN HOCKNEY
LIVONIA, Michigan – When members of the Indiana University Kokomo volleyball team look back at the 2015 season, they will fondly remember taking the program to historic new heights. They will recall the school record 34 wins and a 19-match win streak. They will smile at winning the school’s first-ever regular season and conference tournament championships in any sport. And they will take pride in knowing they earned the Cougars first berth in the NAIA Volleyball National Championship.
But for now they will remember the disappointment in losing its opening round match at the NAIA tourney in straight sets to No. 23 Madonna University (28-26, 25-21, 25-21). While the squad will be disappointed, head coach Heather Hayes is thrilled with how the season went – and her message to the team was that they have nothing to be ashamed of.
“I couldn’t be more proud of my team,” said Hayes. “We showed we could compete and we have nothing to be ashamed of. I told the girls after the game that they could hold their heads up high because they had a great year and came out here and competed. They brought a lot of attention to this program with the way they competed against a much respected volleyball program in Madonna.”
In the first round of the 36-team national tourney, the Cougars showed they belonged by competing with the 15-time national tournament qualifying Crusaders and its legendary head coach. In his 29th season, Jerry Abraham is the all-time winningest NAIA volleyball coach with 1,118 victories.
With more than 100 Kokomo fans making the trip in snowy travel conditions, the Cougars jumped to a 5-2 early lead on the nationally-ranked Crusaders. Madonna stormed back for a 17-15 lead only to see the Cougars retake the lead 19-18 on a block by Lexi Brickner and Keeana Walton. Knotted at 22, Nicole Sandmann blasted a kill and combined with Corinn Dennis for a block to bring the match to set point. But the Crusaders battled back and forced extra points. A Sandmann kill tied it at 26, but Madonna scored the final two points to earn a hard-fought 28-26 opening set win.
The Cougars again battled in set two, forcing ties at 1, 8, 11 and 12 points. They grabbed the lead at 13-12 on another Sandmann/Dennis block and a Casie Divine kill made it 15-13. Madonna tied the match at 17 and took the second set 25-21.
An injury to Sandmann limited the Cougars net play in the final set, but they were still tied at eight thanks to an Elyse Younger kill. Rachel Allen had a kill to keep the Cougars within one at 12-11, but Madonna took over from there and opened up a 20-13 lead. Lindi Thomas cut the lead to 22-20 with a kill but the Crusaders sealed the win by taking three of the final four points.
“Our team knows they had the opportunities to win against Madonna, but at the end of the day we had a great season,” said Hayes. “They will look back at this and appreciate knowing they were part of something great. They are part of history. It is great to see how close we are as a program to a perineal top 25 team.”
Brickner led Kokomo with 10 kills, Sandmann had eight kills and four blocks, Dennis had five blocks, Kaleigh Ensley had 17 digs and Casey Colgate finished with 13 assists. Ensley, a junior, broke the Cougars single-season record with 636 digs while Walton, also a junior, broke the season record with 123 total blocks and 118 block assists.
Kokomo’s two seniors closed their careers strong: Cortney Hanson had 17 assists two digs and an ace while Allen had five digs and a kill.
“We are going to miss those two a great deal; they are so hard-working and have a great sense for the game,” said Hayes. “They were awesome to coach. They were so committed to building this program – what an awesome opportunity for them to have played in the national tournament from where they started four years ago. They pushed their teammates to achieve at a level I wanted. I am grateful to them for believing in me. They bought in to changing the culture of the program. I am going to miss them.”
Hanson graduates as the program’s career leader in assists (2,952) and service aces (190) and holds several season and single-game records. Allen is second on the Cougar’s career list in block assists (159), total blocks (182) and kills (769), and third in digs (837).
While Madonna advances to the Round of 24 in Sioux City, Iowa, Hayes and the Cougars will look to the future of the program, knowing the groundwork has been laid for success.
“Every year we seem to make a little more progress,” said Hayes, who is 87-24 in three seasons at the helm. “That is a testament to our players who put in the time and commitment to continue to improve. Last year we lost in the conference tournament and it made them hungry to win – and they did. I hope they do the same with this loss to Madonna. I hope this gave them the confidence to know they can compete, and next year we can set a goal to win the first round. We can compete at this level.”