All of a sudden, the pre-season ranking for the Grand Canyon University women’s volleyball team seems questionable.
The Antelopes were picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Pacific West Conference, but they are rolling into today’s conference opener with Hawai’i Pacific with a full head of steam. The ‘Lopes have won four straight, three of them shutouts.
(*Update: GCU beat Hawai’i Pacific, 3-1, to go undefeated through the four games of their invitational and extend their win streak to five games.)
It didn’t look very promising when GCU started the season 0-2, but you had to look beyond the scores to see a team becoming seasoned early through a ‘baptism of fire’ (which is appropo for a Christian-based school).
The ‘Lopes opened the season the hard way, by taking on a nationally-ranked team. But they held their own against No. 16 (now No. 12) Minnesota State in the Nanook Classic in Alaska, winning the third game and then coming back from a 17-13 deficit in the fourth to push the Mavericks to three set points in an attempt to force a fifth set.
Then they took on Dallas Baptist as their second opponent in the Alaska tournament, and second match of the season. The final result was a 2-3 loss – but the match went five sets and took almost 2 1/2 hours to complete.
The near-miss with Dallas Baptist helped the team build some early-season confidence, as some of the younger players stepped forward. A freshmen and a trio of sophomores – all local recruits – played key roles in the match.
Megan Davis, a sophomore from Westwood High School in Mesa, led the squad with 19 kills, and sophomores Kaitlynn Ausmus and Caelen Hiller added 14 and 13 more kills, respectively. Both are also local products, Ausmus from Deer Valley High School and Hiller from Sunnyslope High.
Davis’ 19 kills were the most for a GCU player since September of last year, when Sara Bowden recorded that many in a match against Lees-McRae.
Hiller also had 20 digs, while freshman Mackenzie Phelps from Prescott High School had 19. Junior setter, Kristen Preach from Xavier Prep in Phoenix, added 36 assists.
The squad took the momentum, and the lessons learned against a couple of quality opponents, into the final game of the tournament and beat host Alaska Fairbanks, 3-0. That carried over to the first two games of the GCU Invitational on their home court, which added up to three straight shutouts, as the ‘Lopes beat Montana State-Billings and Colorado Christian.
Yesterday’s 3-1 win against Western New Mexico runs the ‘Lopes record to 4-2 and sets up this afternoon’s meeting with Hawai’i Pacific to close out the invitational and open conference play at the same time.
Preach had another impressive outing, recording 40 assists and nine digs, along with 22 digs by the freshman libero, Phelps.
But it was the play of Brooke Blomenkamp that head coach Kris Naber called the “game-changer.” The senior transfer from Western Nebraska Community College finished with a career-high 17 kills.
It was also the 250th career victory for Naber, who is in her 17th season as the program’s head coach. A former player at GCU, she holds the distinction of being the school’s first All American in the sport.
Naber has been counting on the play of her veterans this season, as the ‘Lopes return 14 players from last year’s squad that include Preach, an All-Conference honorable mention setter, and senior Laurann Durbin from Sunnyslope High, who is the all-time leader in digs.
Durbin set single-season dig records in each of her three seasons at the west Phoenix school and had 616 last year to make her the 15th best in the nation.
Minnesota State is the only pre-season ranked opponent on the ‘Lopes schedule this year. But it turned out to be a good thing.
GCU got its focus early, and is ready to begin proving the pre-season picks were terribly wrong.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)