This could be the year that the Grand Canyon University women’s volleyball team is able to sneak up on its Western Athletic Conference (WAC) opponents and turn the corner in its development as a Division I contender.
And leading the sneak attack will be several local players who were instrumental in the Antelopes winning their first tournament of the season, the Texas Southern Invitational in Houston, over the weekend.
Mackenzie Phelps, the senior libero from Prescott High School, and freshman outside hitter Natalie Tardy from Scottsdale’s Horizon High were named the tournament MVPs after the ‘Lopes went undefeated through the Texas Southern, beating the host team, Prairie View, and New Orleans.
(*Update 9/1: Tardy was named the WAC Volleyball Player of the Week for her performance at the Texas Southern Invitational.)
“(Tardy and Dugan) were powerhouses offensively for us all weekend,” said head coach Kris Naber after the tournament wrapped. “(Phelps) has developed into such a calming presence on the court. Her leadership really showed through in pressure situations over the course of the weekend.”
Those two players are just a couple of the reasons GCU could easily exceed the sixth-place preseason pick they were given by the other coaches in the WAC. The ‘Lopes are just beginning their second year of a four-year transition from Division II to D-I, and last year finished 12-19 overall and 4-12 in conference in their inaugural season.
That’s a frustrating fall-off for a program that made it into the NCAA tournament the last two seasons of its D-II participation. They won’t be eligible for the tourney again until their transition period is complete.
But there are other reasons to believe this year’s team will make an even bigger improvement than expected. (The ‘Lopes finished seventh in the conference last season.)
Despite graduating five seniors last season, GCU has six players that returned from that squad, including five that saw considerable playing time. And two of them, Phelps and Shannon Dugan, were selected to the preseason All-WAC team.
Phelps is the program’s all-time leader in digs, with 1,877 coming into her final season, and last year led the conference with 5.65 digs per set. Dugan is a senior outside hitter from Nevada who topped the team last year in kills with a 2.66 average, which was good enough for ninth in the WAC.
They will add leadership on the floor, as well as make big contributions on the stat sheet.
Then, mix in a couple of Division I transfers and two more from the junior-college ranks and you have a team loaded with experience. The D-I transfers are both setters, Michelle Steagall, a 5’10 sophomore who attended Desert Vista High in Phoenix before spending a year at Winthrop, and Leigh Stonerook, a redshirt sophomore who arrived from Montana State in time to play for the GCU sand volleyball program last spring.
Natalija Dordevic and Jordyn Sanchez are a couple of outside hitters from JUCO programs, Sanchez a 5’9″ sophomore from Golden West College in California and Dordevic a 6’1″ native of Belgrade who attended Odessa College in Texas.
Naber, who is entering her 20th season in charge of the program, has also added some help on the bench. Earlier this month, she announced the addition of Jose Lugo as an assistant. Lugo, who was an assistant at Arizona State and spent the last three seasons as an assistant at Dartmouth, will bring to the GCU program experience in recruiting at the D-I level and a list of contacts around the country.
That recruiting help will be important later on, but right now Naber is focused on the season unfolding before her. And it sounds like she is pleased with what she is seeing so far.
“Going 3-0 and coming home with first place speaks volumes for these girls and for the direction of our program,” she points out. “Having a freshman outside hitter and senior libero as tournament MVPs shows that both our veteran and newcomers are performing consistently at a high level.”
Consistency was a big problem for last year’s team. But it sounds like this group is clearing that hurdle early.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)