Women’s Volleyball Team Off to Best Start in GCU History
Story by Bob Romantic
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
That scream you heard Monday coming from the GCU pool?
No need to worry; it was just the undefeated women’s volleyball team.
Several members of the team were enjoying a day off and relaxing poolside when a text message came from their coach, Kris Naber.
The message: GCU is now ranked 12th in the country in NCAA Division II.
“When we got that message, everybody just started screaming,” said sophomore Hayleigh Friemoth. “We were just speechless.”
To put that accomplishment into perspective, consider the following:
- GCU hadn’t appeared in the NCAA national rankings in at least 17 years (records before that are sketchy) before it debuted last week at No. 24.
- Last year, the Antelopes reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995.
- Just two years ago, the team struggled through a 10-19 season, losing its final seven matches of the year.
And now? GCU is 10-0 (the best start in school history), has won 24 of its last 25 matches dating to last season, and is rocketing up the national rankings.
“It’s humbling,” Naber said of the team’s accomplishments. “There’s so much credit to the girls and what they do every day.”
Changing the mentality
GCU added some key players following that 2010 season, bringing in Mackenzie Phelps, Janae Giles and Friemoth to join holdovers such as Kristen Preach, Shelby Taylor, Sarah Bowden, Kaitlynn Ausmus, Kristen Johannsen and Caelen Hiller.
But Naber and her players point to team chemistry as the biggest change since 2010.
“2010 was a rough season for everyone,” said Taylor, who was a starter on that team. “We played like individuals. There were people who weren’t committed to the program. This year is a 180-degree change. There are no negative thoughts. There’s no ‘one foot in, one foot out’ like it was in 2010.”
Coming off that disappointing season, Preach said the Antelopes didn’t know how capable they were at the beginning of 2011, when they got off to an 8-6 start before closing the regular season with 14 straight wins.
“We were just kind of feeling it out,” said Preach, who ranks second all-time in assists at GCU. “Now we know what it takes. We want to be national champions. That’s our big goal, and nothing is stopping us from getting there.”
Taking on all comers
The Antelopes’ impressive start in 2012 hasn’t been built on the back of a soft schedule.
To the contrary, GCU has won two tournaments, beaten two ranked teams and knocked off a team that was 6-0.
The first marquee victory was a 25-20, 22-25, 25-12, 28-26 win against then-17th-ranked UC San Diego — avenging a loss to the Tritons in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. It marked a role reversal from last year, when UC San Diego was the senior-led team and dispatched the up-and-coming Antelopes.
“We’re no longer the ones who are scouting the other team that is the team to beat,” Taylor said. “Now we’re that team.”
The Antelopes also beat Cal State San Bernardino, ranked No. 3 in the country at the time, by scores of 23-25, 25-16, 25-11, 25-12.
“The San Bernardino match, just the way we crushed them, that felt amazing,” Preach said. “Beating the No. 3 team in the nation … once we beat them, we knew we could beat anybody.”
Another marquee victory came last weekend against Texas Women’s University at the Holiday Inn Crossroads Classic in Grand Junction, Colo. TWU came into the match with a 6-0 record before being swept by the Antelopes 25-15, 25-11, 25-20.
“We were watching them warm up and they were just pounding balls,” Freimoth said. “We were like, ‘Dang, they have some big girls, they block, they have big hitters.’ We went into that game so focused and ready and we shut them down. Everything we practiced on the court came together.”
Amid all those signature wins, perhaps the most impressive victory came against Colorado Mesa. GCU won the first two games, but relaxed and dropped the next two mistake-filled games and fell behind 12-6 in the final game (which goes to 15).
The Antelopes rallied with six straight points and survived four match points before pulling out a 21-19 victory.
“I knew in preseason we had a good group, but I didn’t know mentality-wise what they could do,” Naber said. “The Colorado Mesa game was one that … I don’t like having to come from behind, but I knew if we could do that, we can accomplish what’s put in front of us.”
“The way we came back from 6-12 in the fifth game is just unheard of,” Taylor added. “It really showed how composed we were and how prepared we were, because not many teams can do that.”
It doesn’t get any easier
The Antelopes know they can’t get too full of themselves, because the upcoming schedule is just as daunting.
GCU opens Pacific West Conference play at home Saturday with a 6 p.m. match against Fresno Pacific. The Sunbirds are making the jump to NCAA Division II this season from the NAIA, where they were a perennial powerhouse. Fresno won four straight NAIA volleyball titles from 2007-2010 and is off to a 7-1 start this season.
Next week, the Antelopes travel to Hawai’i for four matches in seven days against Hawai’i Hilo, Chaminade, BYU-Hawai’i and Hawai’i Pacific. BYU-Hawai’i is the defending conference champ and lost only one player from last year’s team.
Hilo and BYU each beat GCU twice in the middle of last season before the Antelopes won their final 14 matches of the year.
Preach said the Antelopes are ready for those games, and whatever lies beyond.
“It’s really cool to be part of something like this and breaking records (for best start in school history), then being ranked 24th, then being 12th … It’s like, ‘What’s going to happen next?’
“Last year we hadn’t experienced a lot of success,” Preach added. “It was something we wanted, but realistically it wasn’t something we knew was going to happen. Now we know it’s going to happen. It’s not even a doubt in anyone’s mind. We want to go way further than what we did last year.”
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.