Kristen Preach, Like GCU Women’s Volleyball, Has Come a Long Way
Story by Bob Romantic
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The contrasting images seem almost incomprehensible now.
Five years ago, Kristen Preach was sitting in the gym with cold towels draped over her head, dealing with dehydration and exhaustion and unable to keep up with her teammates during sprints and workouts. It marked the beginning of a long year of hospital tests and health issues that kept her away from volleyball for a second successive season.
Today, the senior setter is the unquestioned leader of one of the best women’s volleyball teams in GCU history – a player who has been at the forefront of the program’s resurgence and someone whose work ethic and determination will serve as the benchmark for future players to uphold.
Just don’t ask Preach to reflect on that journey quite yet. She’s got a match today against San Francisco State in the first round of the NCAA West Region tournament, and she’s not ready for her season – and career – to be over just yet.
“I have asked her several times if it’s starting to sink in,” said Kristen’s mother, Deb Preach. “And she always says, ‘I am not ending until the last ball hits the floor in the final match of year.’ When I see her next, she will probably be pretty emotional in one way if her season is over, and another way if it’s not.”
Frustration at the start
Preach, 24, is winding down a career in which she was just named to the All-Pacific West Conference first team for the second consecutive year as well as the All-West Region first team (which encompasses three conferences).
She ranks second on the school’s career assists list with 3,775.
And, as GCU’s head coach, Kris Naber, puts it, “She has been a great role model for her peers, both younger and older, of how Grand Canyon volleyball wants to be thought of. Her work ethic and skill will set the standard for girls coming into the program, and set the recruiting standard for us in what we want our setters to be.”
NCAA West Region Volleyball Championships GCU vs. San Francisco State, 5:30 p.m. (Arizona time), at Laie, Hawai’i Links to video and live stats will be available at gculopes.com, or follow via Twitter @GCU_Lopes
To put such accolades into perspective, you have to go back to when Preach first stepped foot on the GCU campus. That was 2007, when she had surgery for a torn meniscus in her left knee and missed the entire season. She had a second surgery six months later to clean up the knee and came into the 2008 season ready to make up for lost time.
Her body, however, had other ideas. Preach kept getting sick and dehydrated. She needed water, but that didn’t agree with an upset stomach; she felt fatigued easily; and she had grown tired of seeing what seemed like every specialist in the book trying to figure out what was wrong with her.
“It was frustrating because we didn’t know what was wrong and why I was getting sick all the time,” Preach said. “Even after I got treated for heat exhaustion and dehydration, I still couldn’t keep up. I was not used to being last in sprints and not keeping up with everyone. On top of being told you have to sit in bed all day, it was hard.”
Finally, an endocrinologist determined that Preach was anemic due to an iron deficiency in her body. That diagnosis enabled her to get healthy, and she also improved her diet. But by then, Year 2 at GCU was already in the books, and Preach had yet to play a match for the Antelopes.
“The biggest focus that year was getting her healthy and getting her to where she could go through daily life,” said Naber, who is in her 18th year as coach at GCU. “We weren’t even worried about volleyball.”
But Naber knew, even then, what was in store once her prized recruit from Xavier Prep in Phoenix stepped onto the court.
It’s in the genes
To say the Preach household is competitive is an understatement. Deb was a softball player in high school and was crowned Miss Teen Arizona in 1984. Her husband, Brett, was a three-sport athlete in high school who later played baseball at Scottsdale Community College. Together they raised four girls who excelled in several sports but all of whom found a home on the volleyball court.
“For a good portion of the year, it was very chaotic when they were young and played multiple sports,” Deb Preach said. “But it was fantastic in the same breath.”
All four girls played volleyball at Xavier, where Kristen always had at least one sibling on her team. Kristen played varsity when her older sister, Lindsay, was a senior. Later, younger sisters Lacey and Stephanie were on the varsity team during Kristen’s senior year.
“Everything I think of growing up was some type of game or competing against each other or Dad running us through workouts,” Kristen said. “Even if we had some sort of fight, it was usually two of us against the other two. You wouldn’t expect four girls to be into competing so much, but it was fun.”
They also learned from one another.
While Kristen was sidelined, she said she enjoyed watching the enthusiasm Stephanie had during matches.
“She really taught me what I want to bring to the court. Back in high school, I was never one to jump around and go crazy. I was cool and calm. But watching her,
I just wanted to play like her.”
Stephanie is now a sophomore on the Arizona State University team, which, like GCU, has qualified for the postseason. The Sun Devils will be in Provo, Utah, on Friday facing Oklahoma in the first round of the NCAA Division I tournament while Kristen is in Hawai’i for the D-II tournament.
That means Dad and Lindsay will make the trip to Hawai’i while Mom goes to Utah.
“We try to split it up so we have someone everywhere,” Deb said.
Kristen said her father is totally into volleyball. “He knows more about the other teams than I do. He is always on his iPad giving me stats about this team or what happened this weekend between other teams in our region. He loves it.”
Kristen’s grandparents also are regulars at the matches. And her aunt, Robyn McDowell, played volleyball at GCU in the early ’90s.
“She was on one of the last teams at GCU to make the postseason (before the Antelopes returned in 2011),” Kristen said. “They reached the Sweet 16, so I want to beat her finish.”
Did we mention the Preaches were competitive?
Back in the NCAA tournament
The Antelopes (23-5) are the No. 2 seed in the West Regional and ranked No. 20 in the country. To reach the Sweet 16, they need to defeat seventh-seeded San Francisco State today and then beat the winner of the first-round match between No. 3 seed Cal State San Bernardino and No. 6 Central Washington (both of whom GCU beat during the regular season) on Friday.
Click here for a video preview of Kris Naber and Kristen Preach talking to Michael Potter about the NCAA tournament.
That could set up a possible rematch Saturday with top-seeded BYU-Hawai’i in the Sweet 16. The Seasiders swept GCU during a match earlier this season in Hawai’i. The winner there advances to NCAA quarterfinals on Dec. 6.
“We definitely want to see BYU-Hawai’i again,” Preach said, “but we can’t overlook San Francisco. They are first or second in every statistical category in their conference.”
To even be talking about the Sweet 16 shows how far the program, and Preach, have come in the last four years.
Preach was the Pacific West Freshman of the Year in her first year on the court. The team dipped to 10-19 the following year, but bounced back in 2011 to go 22-7 and reach the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1995 (and only the third time in school history). The Antelopes were a No. 7 seed last year and lost to UC-San Diego in the first round.
“We have so much more confidence going in this time,” Preach said, “and confidence is everything.”
Confidence – and being healthy.
“It’s so weird because it seems like so long ago when I started here. This year is really close to my heart because we’ve been so successful. It’s crazy to see the leap we have made from my first year to now.”
Given how her career began at GCU, the same can be said about Preach.
Contact Bob Romantic at 639.7611 or firstname.lastname@example.org.