#16 GCU volleyball faces must-win games in final weeks

Last year, the Grand Canyon University women’s volleyball squad posted a 22-7 overall record – the most wins in a season since 1999.

Right now, the Antelopes are in position to better that performance.

They are 15-3 and have 10 matches remaining – and all but two are at home.  And their matches with the conference’s top three teams are already behind them.

The Lopes have already met Fresno Pacific and California Baptist, which are tied at the top with 6-0 records, and Hawaii Pacific, which is also undefeated (5-0) and sitting in third place.  GCU (5-3) is in fifth place behind Holy Names (5-2).

The top three schools have accounted for all three of the GCU losses this season.  Holy Names rolls into town Thursday as the Lopes begin a home run of eight out of the next nine matches.

GCU is ranked No. 16 in the latest American Volleyball Coaches Association Top 25 poll, which came out today, a step back from No. 13 in the previous poll.  Their loss to California Baptist last Friday accounted for the drop.

That match was one of the most heart-breaking of the season, as the Lopes took the Lancers to five sets in a contest on the road that lasted 2 hours and 25 minutes.  CBU won the match with a 16-14 victory in the final set, in which neither team led by more than two points throughout.

GCU’s sophomore outside hitter, Hayleigh Friemoth, had a career-high 23 kills, the most since a meeting with Fort Lewis back in August of 2009.

The Lopes will get another shot at beating Cal Baptist on Oct. 27 when the Lancers have to come to Phoenix to play in the new GCU arena.

However, a good sign for head coach Kris Naber was the Lopes’ ability to bounce back from that stunner the next day.  In another five-set challenge, also on the road, GCU beat Azusa Pacific.

The Lopes went on an 8-0 run to close out the fifth set against the California team and notch a conference victory that will give them some real momentum as they enter their long home stand.

“It was a great comeback win,” said Naber after the win.  “We went into (the game) with a different mentality (than against Cal Baptist).  We battled every point and weren’t concerned about mistakes.”

The 18th-year head coach pointed to the team’s blocking efforts as the margin of victory.  GCU dominated the blocking, posting 23 blocks to the Cougars’ 11.  Shelby Taylor recorded six blocks and Kristen Johannsen added five more.

Naber found both middle blockers in the private schools, pulling Taylor into the program from Phoenix Christian High School and Johannsen from Valley Christian High School in Chandler.

GCU had the edge in a number of categories.  They outhit Azusa, .230 to .186; had more digs, 88-85; and scored more service aces, 6-5.

Janae Giles, the 6-foot senior outside hitter, had 13 kills and 10 digs.  Sophomore libero Mackenzie Phelps, who was recruited out of Prescott High School, had 34 digs, and senior setter Kristen Preach was everywhere on the floor.  Preach, a first-team All-state selection at Xavier Prep in Phoenix, recorded 45 assists, 12 digs, and five kills.

Since the Lopes have already played three of the PacWest teams above them and only play one of them again, Cal Baptist, they need some help to realize the pre-season polls that had them picked to finish in second place in the conference.  Someone else needs to put some losses on the leaders.

And that’s why Thursday’s game against fourth-ranked Holy Names, and the re-match with Cal Baptist two weeks later, are so important.

It’s time for a gut-check for a team that has proven it has the depth to make a run at the post-season.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)