The road to Division I has been a long, winding one for head coach Kris Naber and her Grand Canyon University women’s volleyball team.
Nine years playing in the California Collegiate Conference, which was made up primarily of club teams. Two years as an independent. Seven more years as a Division II team playing in the Pacific West Conference.
And finally the step up to Division I last year as a new member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC).
Through all those twists and turns, for the last 19 years, Naber has been at the helm of the program. During that time, she has seen just about everything.
But the last week or so has brought some new surprises – and a fresh dose of confidence for the future.
Naber’s Antelopes rebounded from a stretch of seven matches in which they won just one to turn around and beat the top two teams in the WAC.
Three straight wins began with an Oct. 23 victory over Texas-Pan American when the ‘Lopes tallied a season-high 12 service aces, led by sophomore middle blocker Hanah Hankins‘ five. The conference win was also fueled by 21 kills by Shannon Dugan, who also had 12 digs to record her 11th double-double of the year.
They followed up that act by knocking off two-time defending WAC champion – and currently in second place – New Mexico State in five sets. Another double-double from Dugan led the way as the 5’11” senior outside hitter recorded 22 kills and 16 digs. Natalie Tardy, a freshman outside hitter from Horizon High in Scottsdale, topped the charts with 24 kills and also added 16 digs, while senior libero Mackenzie Phelps from Prescott High School finished with 31 digs and a career-best 11 assists.
It was the first time in program history that GCU has beaten New Mexico State.
Dugan was named the WAC Player of the Week after those two games as she averaged a conference-best 4.78 kills per set. Her 12 double-doubles also led the conference.
But they saved the best for last. On Saturday, the Lopes made their final road trip of the regular season to Missouri where they took on UM-Kansas City, which was unbeaten in conference play, ranked No. 1 in the WAC, and No. 78 in the latest NCAA Division-I RPI.
Kansas City beat the Lopes back in September, but not this time. GCU ended the Kangaroos’ 17-match win streak in a five-set victory that went down to the wire. The two teams played the final set to a 14-14 tie before back-to-back kills by Tardy wrapped up the victory.
Tardy had 21 kills and 17 digs, which brought GCU a second straight WAC Player of the Week award. It was her second POW this season.
Dugan contributed 18 kills and six digs and sophomore right-side hitter Megan Byrnes added 11 kills on .312 hitting. Phelps topped her performance against New Mexico State, posting 35 digs, and sophomore setter Michelle Steagall had 48 assists and 15 digs. Byrnes was recruited out of Basha High School in Chandler and Steagall is another local athlete, from Desert Vista High in Phoenix.
GCU boosted its overall record to 15-9, three more victories than last year when the program embarked on its first season of Division I competition. The win over UMKC was the fifth conference victory, which surpassed last year’s total of four WAC wins.
During Grand Canyon’s run as a Division II program, Naber led her teams to five top-5 finishes in the PacWest Conference and took them to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances in 2011 and 2012. Now, the former All-American during her playing days at GCU is starting over again at a whole new level of play.
But, after notching 12 wins last season and within reach of a 20-win season (including post-season play) in the second year of D-I competition, it appears she will have laid a solid foundation for when the small Christian college finishes its four-year transition to a fully-accredited Division I program.
The victory over Kansas City will serve as a signpost toward success on their trip through the transition period. “I’m incredibly proud of what these girls did tonight and so excited to see where we’re headed,” she said after that huge upset on the road.
Right now, it’s pretty apparent where they’re headed. They’re on the right track to put the rest of the WAC teams in the rear-view mirror.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)