“I think you go into every season trying to win the conference championship and go to the post-season,” were the words of Grand Canyon University head volleyball coach, Kim Naber, in September as the Antelopes got ready to meet Minnesota State for their opening match.
The ‘Lopes have accomplished half of the mission, and very nearly pulled it all off.
They completed a second-place finish in the Pacific West Conference and will begin post-season play Thursday when they meet No. 2-seeded University of California San Diego in the NCAA Division II West Regional. The ‘Lopes are seeded No. 7.
This will be the first tournament appearance for the women’s team since 1995, and only the third in the history of the program.
(*Update: The ‘Lopes season ended at the West Regional semi-final where they lost in five sets to CSU San Bernadino, the four-time region champion and last year’s national runner-up. It was a huge comeback effort after losing the first two sets and taking the final set to a 15-12 conclusion. Mackenzie Phelps from Prescott High School tied a school record with 45 digs in a single match.)
“I think we’re going to surprise some people and turn some heads.”
That was Naber’s prediction just before the 2011 season got underway. And that one was fulfilled to a ‘t’.
GCU jumped right into the deep water this season, taking on Minnesota State for its first game on the schedule. The Mavericks were ranked No. 16 in the country at the time.
The ‘Lopes took them to four games in a match held in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of the Nanook Classic. They had three set points in the fourth game in an attempt to force a fifth and deciding set, giving them a chance to pull off the upset.
But it set the tone for the rest of the season, as the team went on to post a 22-6 record, the most wins since 1999 when that squad went 25-7. They finished No. 7 in the West Region.
All that had to be considered something of a surprise since the ‘Lopes were coming off a 10-19 record in 2010 and had been picked to finish sixth in the conference this season.
Oh yeah, they also closed out the season by setting a new school record for consecutive victories. They tied the record of 12 straight in a game that turned out to be the inaugural sporting event in the school’s new arena.
Then they beat Dixie State twice to run the new record to 14, which they set on Senior Night.
The final two matches against Dixie State involved a collective effort that spanned the grade levels.
In the first game, a 3-0 win, freshman libero Mackenzie Phelps let the way with 18 digs; sophomore outside hitter Caelen Hiller had a team-high 14 kills; and junior setter Kristen Preach contributed 42 assists.
In the 3-1 season finale, senior middle hitter Stephanie McBride, the conference leader in blocks, had a match-high six blocks; Hiller led with 20 kills; Preach finished with a season-high 53 assists; and Phelps added 23 digs.
Most of those players are home-grown. Preach played at Xavier Prep in Phoenix, Phelps at Prescott High School, and Hiller came up through Sunnyslope High School.
With this kind of young talent emerging early, Coach Naber might also realize another ambitious goal. When considering the opportunity to start their schedule this season against a nationally-ranked team, she called it a great opportunity. “It gives us an idea where we want to be… we want to be that team.”
They aren’t there yet, but this season was a big step toward that goal.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)