That atmosphere of excitement and optimism that filled the Grand Canyon University Arena for the first women’s volleyball match of the season has slowly been turning into a haunting sense of deja vu.
It’s beginning to feel like 2016 all over again. And that’s not a good thing.
Last year, the Antelopes opened the season with their own tournament, the GCU Invitational, and set a new school women’s volleyball attendance record by drawing 1,353 fans to the event.
After all the hype and excitement subsided, the ‘Lopes got the 2016 season started by winning four out of their first five games. And then lost 18 in a row, finishing the season with a disappointing 6-21 record.
This year, the Antelopes opened the season again by hosting the GCU Invitational, and re-set the attendance record with 2.504 enthusiastic fans in a festival-like atmosphere that included a new lights-out introduction video, a Yurview television broadcast, and high-octane student spirit led by the school pep band and cheerleaders.
Then the reality of a new season of competition set in. The ‘Lopes won four of their first six games and then won just one more over the next 11 matches. They’re currently riding a seven-game losing streak.
And that under-achieving is showing up at the gate. By the Sept. 9 game with Idaho, attendance had fallen from those 2,500 eager fans to 1,389. The last home game, on Sept. 28 against Utah Valley, the attendance topped out at 611.
At this point, the fans in the school’s notoriously loud and raucous student section, the Havocs, are just biding their time waiting for men’s basketball to satisfy their unquenchable thirst for a winning team they can get behind. And Dan Majerle’s squad fits that bill, filling the gym for every game on the schedule, every season since he took over four years ago.
And the women’s team is under the direction of a new head coach, Nicole Powell, who promises to provide an exciting experience on her side of the twin bill.
So volleyball is taking a back seat to basketball, even before hoops season gets into full swing.
This is the second season for a new head volleyball coach trying to prove himself. Tim Nollan needs one more win to match last season’s total. But that’s far from what was expected when he was hired in January of 2016, when the school’s VP of Athletics Mike Vaught called his new hire “one of the most respected volleyball coaches in the country” and spoke of a “great future for GCU volleyball.”
To make matters worse, this is the first season of full membership status as a Division I program. After a four-year transition period from Division II in which GCU showed it is ready for the next level, the excitement has been at a fever pitch as players and fans alike waited through the summer to get to the new era in Grand Canyon sports.
But women’s volleyball is not scratching that itch.
Nollan replaced Kris Naber, who spent 21 seasons in charge of the program. A former student-athlete at GCU, she took over as head coach and led the program through nine years playing in the California Collegiate Conference, which was made up primarily of club teams, to a couple more as an independent, and finally through seven seasons as a D-II program in the Pacific West Conference
Naber enjoyed a successful ride through the PacWest, but the step up to D-I play during the transition period was a different story. During the first three years in the Western Athletic Conference, her teams compiled a 12-30 conference record.
She was “relieved of her duties” in early November of 2015 and an interim coach took the team the rest of the way to finish the season. Nollan took over for the 2016 season.
Nollan enjoyed success in his previous two jobs, nine years as an assistant at USC and four years at Pepperdine. At both stops, his ability to recruit top talent helped those programs to success in their respective conferences. The Trojans won two Pac-12 titles while he was there, and the Waves made three trips to the NCAA Tournament.
He served as the recruiting coordinator at USC, bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2010, and the No. 2 class in 2013 and again in 2014. At Pepperdine, he helped pull in back-to-back Top 10 recruiting classes.
Nollan is still working, for the most part, with players he didn’t recruit. But he is also working this season with talent he helped develop last year. He has last year’s top four front-line players back, all seniors: Randahl Powers (202 kills last season), Jordyn Sanchez (183 kills), Katrice Pond (169 kills), and Natalie Tardy (151 kills).
Sophomore setter Heidi Carpenter is also back. The Mesa High School grad led the team in assists (768) and service aces (33) last season. And last year’s No. 1 middle blocker (810 blocks), 6’2″ Hannah Hicks, is also on the court again this year.
With just nine more matches on the schedule Nollan needs to begin getting more out of the talent he has to keep from letting this season spiral out of control, and give him some momentum going into what will likely be a pivotal third season in his tenure.
And then he needs to resurrect the kind of recruiting success he enjoyed at USC and Pepperdine.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/Michael Rincon)