BY DEAN HOCKNEY
KOKOMO, Ind. – What started as the longest road trip in Indiana University Kokomo athletics history turned into the happiest night in the short six-year journey of the Cougars athletic program. After a long nine-plus hour bus trip to Ottawa University in Kansas, the IU Kokomo women’s volleyball team stunned the hosts with a come-from-behind five-set victory to win its first-ever opening round match in the NAIA Volleyball National Championship – and in the process the Cougars punched its ticket to Sioux City, Iowa, and a shot at the national title.
“It means so much to the program,” said IU Kokomo Chancellor Dr. Susan Sciame-Giesecke. “Thank you to (head coach) Heather Hayes and her leadership and excellent coaching. And thank you to the girls and their fight and spirit.”
The win was not only a first NAIA tournament win for any IUK squad, but also just the second for a River States Conference volleyball program – IU East advanced to in 2012 when the league was called the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference.
“It was a true championship atmosphere,” said Hayes of the match against NAIA No. 29 Ottawa. “This was exciting.”
The Cougars win over Ottawa (19-25, 25-19, 16-25, 25-12, 15-10) was as thrilling as the five-set victory to claim the RSC title the weekend before. And once again, IU Kokomo got off to a slow start, which Hayes said can be attributed partially to nerves.
“Early in the match, mistakes caused us to lose the first set,” said Hayes. “Ottawa was a good team, but the emotions of the moment rattled us a little bit and we had some uncharacteristic communication errors.”
After getting the team to settle down, the Cougars took the second set only to find themselves down 2-1 after the third. But with its back against the wall for the second consecutive match, IU Kokomo showed why they were in the NAIA National Championship tournament for a second consecutive year by dominating the fourth set.
Freshman McKenna Lundy started the set with a kill and Maddison Taylor served an ace for a quick 2-0 Kokomo lead. The home squad called a timeout after committing three straight attack errors to fall behind 6-3. Out of the timeout, senior Kaleigh Ensley served back-to-back service aces, Lindi Thomas had a kill and Ottawa recorded another attack error to put Kokomo up 10-3.
“We started mixing up our shots more so it was harder to defend,” said Hayes. “That helped us convert better in our defensive transition. And we did a great job of applying service pressure.”
Before Ottawa (31-8) knew what hit them, IU Kokomo had stretched its lead to 15-6 on kills from Thomas and Lundy. IUK led by 10 at 18-8 after another Lundy kill, one of her five in the fourth set. Casey Colgate put the set away on a kill to force a fifth and deciding set.
“I thought towards the end of set three, we started to play better,” said Hayes. “We were just a little off and took some time to settle in. Once we did, we realized we could compete and just started playing volleyball.”
In the fifth set, the Cougars never trailed and led for good on a nice pass by Mary Westover to Sandmann for a 7-6 lead. A Lundy kill and block assist by Nicole Sandmann and Lexi Brickner made it 9-6. The lead was 12-8 after an Elyse Younger and Keeana Walton block assist. Thomas had a kill for point 14 and the match-point was won on a block assist by Younger and Sandmann to send the Cougars to Sioux City.
“By the end of the match, our team figured out where we’re going to offensively,” said Hayes. “We did a great job blocking and defending and shutting down their best player. We knew they were going to their best girl (6-foot-1 senior All-American Janaya Fox), so we made sure we talked to our blockers about timing. The last couple of sets we did a much better job.”
Lundy and Thomas led the squad with 15 kills, Walton and Younger had six block assists each and Colgate and Westover had 23 assists a piece. Colgate, Ensley and Taylor each had a pair of service aces. The Cougars had 96 digs and four players in double-digits – Ensley had 28, Thomas 22, Colgate 17 and Kaley Harness 11.
IU Kokomo (27-7) will now travel to the Tyson Events Center in Sioux City and compete in the three-day pool play round of the NAIA Volleyball National Championship. Unfortunately, as the No. 32 seed in the 32-team field, the Cougars were placed in Pool A in what many consider the toughest of the eight national championship pools.
“This is an opportunity to take our program to the next level – this launches into our new sports in such a great way,” said the chancellor. “We have an amazing athletic department and they are working very hard to move this forward in such a short amount of time – look where we are today.”
The Cougars will open play against the overall No. 1 seed and top-ranked team in the nation, Westmont University (31-0) from Santa Barbara, California, at 2 p.m. on Nov. 29. The Warriors were the Golden State Athletic Conference champions.
Match two will come against a familiar foe – No. 16 Indiana Wesleyan University (34-2) at 4 p.m. on Nov. 30. The Wildcats are 2-0 against the Cougars this year after taking a 3-1 win in Marion on Sept. 2 and a 3-1 victory at the Cougar Gym on Oct. 5. The Cats won the Crossroads League title.
The third and final pool play match will be against the defending NAIA national champion and No. 17-ranked Columbia College (26-11) of Columbia, Missouri – a program with four national titles in volleyball. The Cougars will play the American Midwest Conference champs at 2 p.m. on Dec. 1. The winner of Pool A will advance with the other seven pool winners to the bracket round and a shot at the national championship.
“It is almost surreal – did this really happen?” asked Hayes of qualifying for the final site. “I am so proud and excited for our players and our program and our seniors. Our seniors took a gamble to come to IU Kokomo, and to advance one step further each year is very rewarding.”