Three weeks ago I talked with coach Chad Hanson about the volleyball team’s impending trip to the NAIA National Championship in Sioux City.
The conversation centered around his thoughts for the tournament and if he would be willing to take on the assignment of looking back at the ‘regular’ season and preview the national event.
I then wanted him to look back at the national event as an epilogue, no matter the outcome of the 32-team extravaganza.
Little did I know the Defenders would make another trip to the NAIA National Championship match.
Little did I know they would avenge four regular season losses along the way.
Little did I know the Defenders would need to overcome the adversity of dropping a match in pool play before getting into the bracket of 16.
Little did I know the Defenders would have to face long time nemesis Hastings right away in the bracket just to get to the quarterfinals.
The Friday performance of an emotional win over Hastings followed by a gritty win over Westmont just a few hours later will go down, to me at least, as one of the greatest days in Dordt volleyball.
The Saturday morning win with emotions frayed and exhausted bodies over Viterbo was a pleasant surprise.
The match with Lindsey Wilson in the championship match was one where I think all of the emotions and energy exerted for the week caught up with the Defenders. I hope a few days and weeks removed from that day the Defenders can enjoy something that shouldn’t be taken for granted and can realize the accomplishment achieved.
Last year I wrote that for the Defender volleyball the door was open but the ride wasn’t free. To me that means the opportunity is there, but it’s going to cost something.
One year later that hasn’t changed.
Team members may not have the role they wish for but they accept them and excel.
The extra serves practiced after everyone has left the gym is a price to pay.
The extra digs and passing with just a coach present is a price to pay.
The ice and ultra sound treatment on ankles and shoulders after practices and matches is a price to pay.
The time spent building up a teammate who is struggling is a price to pay. Putting others first isn’t always easy and isn’t natural, but it is what we are commanded to do.
And for that price, hopefully, all involved get the opportunity to be a part of something they could not accomplish individually, but as a group.
Thanks again for paying the price. It was a great ride.
Here’s what coach Chad Hanson gave me earlier this week after the roller coaster stopped.
A Journey and Discovery of Growth- Chad Hanson
We entered this season with a communicated message amongst ourselves that we were going to live out brand new experiences and not live under the shadow of last season’s National Tournament Runner-Up Finish (the first of any kind of team National Championship experience for Defender Nation…EVER!). We approached the 2017 season with a spoken “new-season” mentality and the start of a highest national ranking ever in the pre-season polls at #2. Did I really schedule our 2017 non-conference opponents against so many top 25 ranked programs? What was I thinking?
On the first day of our pre-season practices, we reviewed some Biblical principles related to Old Testament law and sacrifices offered that foreshadowed the once and for all sacrifice that Jesus was to become for us (Hebrews 10). The greatness of His selfless love shown to us on the cross is something we can look back on in time and feel great about our sins being forgiven which should lead us to desire and strive for more faithful lives lived each day on this earth…not a passive approach where we look back at greatness (the cross) and consider that our own obedience is futile….quite the contrary. Our obedience is meaningful and our “working out our salvation with fear and trembling” is Kingdom defining.
Through the 5 days of practices, we prepped our line-up and rotations to then head to a grueling tournament of competition in California. We loved the total trip but stumbled through a 2-2 record to open our season. Losing to a highly ranked Westmont team was not that bad for our overall “perception” of being a highly ranked team, but losing to an unranked Vanguard team in three straight sets was possibly going to drop us really hard from our #2 ranking. Seeing promise in the athleticism of our group and the need to refine a ton of areas had us coming back to De Witt Gym with a sense of purpose and urgency.
The many new positions we had to fill in our roster (ball control, right side, and middle hitters) were coming along steadily as we relied heavily on the already established strength of our Libero, setter, and outside hitters. Many areas of growth unfolded in those early season practices and matches. We hosted a highly ranked Corban (Oregon) team in our home opener on the first Thursday night before classes would begin the following Tuesday. The gym was loud with excited fans and really high level Dordt College volleyball. The 3-0 sweep showed a much stronger Defender squad and that gave us optimism heading the next day into the Northwestern Tournament. We won all 4 matches in that tournament (including more ranked opponents) and played very clean volleyball for the most part. Suddenly a 7-2 record felt respectable and I was optimistic that our ranking would remain in the top 10…one more week of competition though before those polls would come out.
With classes beginning, a new shift took place for our program with much needed normalcy leading to 1 practice per day. The change was welcome for our staff and players. Further areas for us to continue growing involved the on-court timing of our offense and some ball control positions. These take time and also create a sense of discomfort in the practice gym where substitutions take place within drills while we attempted to still find the best combination of personnel in each rotation. Only a few days of practices led us into the highly competitive Bellevue Tournament. Relieved to come out of there with another 4 match victory and an 11-2 pre-season record which included more ranked teams. I felt really good about our national ranking position in the polls that would come out the following Tuesday… Whew! Ranked #5 (tied with Westmont). Let’s keep growing through this season Defenders!
We entered our conference schedule hosting a feisty Morningside team and started our conference portion 1-0. Then came a different type of opponent in Grand View (non-conference) on a Saturday. They were pre-season ranked #10 and were now ranked #12 heading into our gym. Beating them in 4 sets gave us an overall record of 13-2…then the season stood still for more reasons than one.
We lost to Northwestern in their gym in 4 sets! The way we lost was really frustrating and puzzling. A team that had shown so much resilience through high level competition, ranked opponents and grueling travel, fell flat on our faces in that Red Raider gym and the chants of “overrated” echoed off the Bultman walls as we walked to gather ourselves post-match in the locker room. Our season took a real hit through that match and following it for several days. The lessons from this tough loss would help harden and better define us, but we needed to discover some real truth’s about ourselves as we refocused for an intense conference schedule ahead.
In fact, we won our next 10 conference matches while sneaking in a hard road loss at #1 ranked Viterbo on a Thursday night. Following the Viterbo loss, I reminded our team of the importance to stay focused on our individual areas of growth and to remain close together as a team despite the frustrations of losing a very competitive and highly ranked match. They responded well and we felt good moving forward into the remainder of our schedule. By the time we played Hastings in the regular season schedule, they were ranked #5 and we were ranked #6. The winner of this match was going to have outright control of the Conference Championship which was a real desire of ours. We won the first 2 sets of the match with really clean and inspired volleyball. Then came out to lose the match in 5 sets…deja-vu (same outcome as the 2016 National Championship match) EXCEPT this felt different to me. Still, we encouraged the team to embrace the future of our season and not let this frustrating loss take us off track from what we still had to accomplish in this 2017 season. Further video reflection and study helped us identify more areas of growth which prepared us to wrap up a strong conference finish.
Who knew that Hastings would lose their final regular season conference match at Doane to give us a tied conference record at 14-2 and a share of the Conference Championship? Amazing turn of events and one that we celebrated quietly as we prepared for a conference tournament opponent named Doane. That’s right, the giant killers of our conference were looking for more opportunity to strengthen their post-season resume and hope to be eligible for a national tournament berth. I’m so grateful that we came out to play and took care of that grueling 4 set match.
Prior to playing Doane and to prep our minds for the Conference Tournament, we stood in the West Lobby of De Witt Gym and noticed the many GPAC plaques and trophies that Dordt Volleyball had won in the early 2000’s. I encouraged us to consider that the strongest teams in the Conference Tournament had historically succeeded the best in the National Tournament (including the most recent 2016 season).
Bring on Northwestern! What a story-line this would be as we had not won a match on their court since 2012 and we were tied this season each beating the other team on our own home floors in 4 sets. The winner of this conference tournament semi-final match would end up playing Hastings for the Conference Tournament Championship and NAIA National Tournament bid. We lost a close 1st set and then went on to win the next three sets to advance to the GPAC Tournament Finals.
Traveling to Hastings and playing them for this Championship was exciting and difficult. We knew them really well and they knew us really well. The match unfolded with us playing poorly in the 1st set and trying to recover some points too late. The second set was close and we nearly pulled it out to tie, but we were down 2 sets as we headed into the intermission break. Our team came out very focused and executed at a high level to win a lopsided third set. Continuing that trend into the 4th set was a joy to see. We were envisioning a 5th set and the re-writing of history, until our scoreboard stopped adding points and their scoreboard kept climbing closer to ours. The 4th set was even for many points until finally Hastings won with a score of 29-27. A truly long drive back to Sioux Center, but those team lessons were still the same as we had learned earlier in the season….stay together and let’s keep growing through this.
We felt confident that our #4 national ranking and Conference Tournament Finalists automatic-berth to NAIA Nationals (because Hastings had earned the regular season berth by tie-break procedures), meant we would be in a really good position to play in Sioux City at the Final Site. The NAIA press release the next day, helped clarify that exact picture and we knew we had 2 weeks of training to prepare for our first opponent, but who would it be?
There is a daunting and exciting task ahead for our women’s volleyball team as we are ranked #4 in the country, seeded 4th in the overall NAIA National Tournament, and expected to be playing on Saturday which is the final four bracket (National Semi-Finals) and Championship match. I have seen many of the teams in this tournament through scouting them in the season or post-season. Another positive feeling I had was that many of these teams we had actually played in our regular season schedule. However, many questions hover over my head about how we will compete under the pressure returning to the same facility trying to still create brand new memories in our 2017 season.
Our practice during the two week post-season stretch has been formative both for rest/recovery from a stiffly competitive conference and non-conference schedule, as well as for building strength/stamina to last through a week of intense national tournament teams. We put new drills in and higher expectations to accomplish those drills at this late stage of our season. The team embraced those challenges with united and energetic spirits, even conquering the challenges with smiles on their faces and 1 better point within that challenge. Right after Thanksgiving, we experienced some internal struggles once again as we forgot some key elements about teamwork and selflessness that had gotten us to this successful point. Those reminders were embraced by our captains and carried forward into the few remaining practices before our first match of pool play was to begin on Tuesday night. If we can avoid experiencing those relapses, then we could have an exciting week of volleyball ahead.
During the three days of pool play, many Defender fans told me they had purchased tickets all the way through to Saturday which gave me great confidence and a sense of anxiety feeling that we were responsible for their expectations. Tuesday night’s match against pool play opponent Ottawa was clunky as it looked like we had not played an opponent in several weeks.
Opening the entire tournament of play on court 1 (previously the National Championship match court we last played on) was very intimidating and a struggle. Our fans were loud in this Ottawa match, yet our memories were feeling like something more was missing at that court. We did have a comfortable lead in one of the sets and I like to get our back-up players some court time whenever possible but I also felt like we needed to get our starters some court timing and game rhythm again after the long break. Beating Ottawa in 3 sets was important for the longevity of the week.
The second night, we faced a Northwest University (WA) team that seemed to be overwhelmed by our strong play. We were glad for the quick 3 set victory and the confidence that we were guaranteed to be playing on Friday (once our other pool opponent Missouri Baptist) also won their Wednesday match.
Our Thursday match against them was just going to be for bracket seeding and would not be an elimination game. Losing the Missouri Baptist pool play match was definitely frustrating and humbling. 5 sets of volleyball with the final score 16-14 in the 5th set…OUCH! In the locker room after the match, we reminded ourselves of the short turnaround that was necessary to learn from this match so we could grow into better performance for our next elimination bracket opponent…Hastings! If we had won the Missouri Baptist match, then we would’ve been opposite Hastings in the bracket and only able to see them potentially in the finals. Hastings! What could we do differently this go around to help us win this mind-stumbling, hand-wringing opponent?
In our scout to prepare for the Hastings match, we told our team that they were about to re-take a “test” that they had already taken several times this season. We told them if they studied for this test in new and better ways, then they were likely to ace this test. They embraced our new scouting report with eagerness and purpose. We felt really good going into this third Hastings installment knowing that is the only thing we needed to focus on. Losing the first set was disappointing but not detrimental as we played competitive and showed some strong points of success. The next three sets of play were absolutely harmony on the volleyball court as plays happened to our favor for our scoreboard and final match victory in the fourth set. WOW! We did it!
Advancing from the Hastings match (and ending their season) to play a Westmont team that had dispatched our conference rival Northwestern in three straight sets, seemed exciting and daunting. I remember thinking in August when we played them that we had lots to learn and could compete well if we played them again. Preparing for Westmont in a short turn-around of 2 hours was enjoyable and stressful. Our team laid on the Tyson floor and tried to savor an amazing victory that just happened while also setting their sights on Westmont. The delayed court schedule from a long day of volleyball meant that our 8p match did not start until 9:30p…WOW! Could we sustain some high level volleyball into the later evening hours?
The first two sets proved to be close until we could break away on the scoreboard and close each one out. What a relief being up 2-0 with high energy and strong play against Westmont! The third set proved a new challenge for us as we looked depleted of energy and the joy of playing. Reminding our team that playing 4 sets takes more energy and exertion than wrapping this up in three, they responded well and closed out the final set with a victory 27-25 to advance to Saturday play in the Final Four.
Viterbo was our Final Four team and the sense of excitement was building. We were re-writing the earlier season stories of our opponents here in this National Tournament having dispatched #3 Hastings in 4 sets, #6 Westmont in 3 sets, what about #2 ranked Viterbo? How would this match go? They were gritty, feisty and resilient…but so were we! High execution level and spirited play brought us to a 4 set victory and a return trip to the National Championship match for the second straight year. Amazing and unbelievable! We are really doing this!
Lindsey Wilson. A new opponent. What makes them work? How will we neutralize their offense and capitalize against their defense? With scouting report completed back at the hotel, we ran through their systems during our short afternoon prep time before checking out of our hotel and heading back for the final match at the Tyson Event Center. We struggled early on and fought very hard for each of our points. They were a worthy opponent and we wished for a different outcome to this match. Down 2-0 at the intermission break, we spoke of re-writing history by changing some strategy areas on the court and executing better in particular defense and offense schemes. The third set was strong for us and we finished with a victory to force a fourth set. The fourth set was never in reach and the match concluded with Dordt as the repeat National Runner-Up Finishers for the second straight year.
Though this loss was difficult and tears in our eyes were visible, the pain of losing this match was altogether unique. We had seen our best volleyball in spirit and execution played this week in a string of matches that re-wrote the history we had with many of our opponents through this season and been able to do it in the friendly confines of the Tyson Event Center which had been so good to us and our fans. What a joy of discovering growth in each of us as this journey unfolded. I would do it all over again and be glad to see how God works in our lives in the new story that He develops each day.