2015 could be pivotal year for GCU women’s volleyball

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                </div>As Grand Canyon University prepares to begin its third year in a four-year transition period to move from Division II to full accreditation as a D-I program athletics program, some […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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As Grand Canyon University prepares to begin its third year in a four-year transition period to move from Division II to full accreditation as a D-I program athletics program, some sports are finding the step up to the big time a difficult one.

That doesn’t appear to be the case, however, with woman’s volleyball.

It took a year of adjustment when the Antelopes finished with a mediocre 12-19 overall record and just four conference wins in 2013.  But last year they seemed to be getting the hang of it, finding it easier to be competitive with teams at the next level.

They beat the top two teams in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), including No. 1 UM-Kansas City, which at the time – on GCU’s final road trip of the season – was unbeaten in conference play.

By season’s end they were on a roll, winning nine of their last 11 matches and going undefeated through four games to win the GCU Invitational, a post-season tournament for programs in the NCAA transition period, or those playing as an independent in an established conference.

And they won 21 games to mark their first 20-win season (21-11) in D-I play, with ten of those wins coming in five-set matches.  It was the third 20-win season in the last four years, as the ‘Lopes were a solid competitor as a D-II team in the Pacific West Conference, nationally-ranked in its last season.

Now they appear to be getting back to their old form, adjusting to a new level of play.

Last season they had an infusion of experience that provided some immediate results by bringing in a couple of Division I transfers and a couple of transfers from the junior-college ranks.

Head coach Kris Naber, who will be on the sidelines for  her 21st season when the 2015 campaign begins, will have nine returning players as her core before adding a new recruit last November, three more during the academic year, and five more since.

The cornerstone to next season’s building program is sophomore outside hitter Natalie Tardy, a local standout from Scottsdale’s Horizon High School who was last season’s WAC Freshman of the Year.  She was twice named the WAC Player of the Week and finished the season third in the conference in kills (3.58) and third in points (14.06) in conference play.

Another local high school grad is included in the incoming group.  Erin Gesicki is a 5’11” outside hitter from Seton Catholic High School in Chandler who posted three prep seasons of 100 or more kills.

Gesicki is one of the five summer additions announced in the last couple of weeks. That group also includes a couple of defensive specialist/liberos and more offensive height in 5’11” middle blocker/outside hitter Emily Aranda from California and 6’0″ Katrice Pond from Washington, who racked up 1,499 kills during her career at Christian Faith High School in Federal Way and closed out her senior season averaging 5.6 per set.

But perhaps the biggest catch came last November when a Texas standout signed on.  Melody Horton, a 6-foot outside hitter from Houston, finished her high school career ranked No. 6 nationally and second among Texas players, based on the MaxPreps Computer Ranking system.  She was eighth in the state and No. 35 in the nation in kills, piling up 654 kills in her senior season.

“We’re extremely excited about the student-athletes that we have added to our 2015 roster,” said Naber after announcing the final additions.  “We feel like we have brought in high-level, physical volleyball players that were well-trained by their high school and club coaches, with pretty high ceilings as far as their development goes.

“They will fit in well with the players that are returning from last year’s 20-win season.”

These are also the players who will form the nucleus of the program in a couple of years when the four-year transition period will have ended and the ‘Lopes will become a fully-accredited D-I program.  They will be the juniors and seniors that will be charged with taking the program into its first NCAA D-I Tournament.

So 2015 has become a pivotal year for this program.

And it all starts with an Aug. 28 trip to the corn fields where the ‘Lopes will take on Pittsburgh in the opening match of the Nebraska Invitational.

(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)