LEXINGTON, Ky. – The five seniors on the Lipscomb volleyball team are back where they began their college careers - in the NCAA Tournament.
Middle blocker Jewell Dobson, outside hitters Lauren Ford and Sophie Kellerman, setter Jordan Huston and libero-defensive specialist Megan Stout all were members of the 2011 team that went to Texas A&M for the tournament as champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference.
The Bisons, returning to the NCAA Tournament after a two-year absence, made history as the first Atlantic Sun team to receive an at-large bid.
All five have been sharing their experiences with the underclassmen on the team, especially the freshmen. They will face Ohio State, 21-11, Friday night at 4 CT at Memorial Coliseum on the University of Kentucky campus. Kentucky and Oakland are scheduled to play at 6:30 CT Friday.
The winners will meet Saturday in the second round at 6 CT with the winner advancing to Louisville to the regionals.
Something to prove
In the 64-team field the Bisons, 21-8, are one of 32 at-large teams. They did not hear their name called until the final bracket on the selection show. They admit it was a little nerve-wracking.
“The week leading up to it we were all pretty confident about it,” Dobson, a co-captain, said. “But when we sat down to watch (the selection show) it was like a `this is happening’ kind of feeling.
“It was kind of surreal. I think the fact we were in the last bracket put so much anticipation on it, but it made it so much more fun to celebrate.”
Kellerman, a co-captain, and her fellow seniors think the team needs to prove the Bisons belong as they make their fifth NCAA Tournament appearance.
“I think now the expectation is we want to do something in the tournament,” Kellerman said. “As an at-large team we have a lot to prove.
“A lot of people are wondering why we got the at-large bid. We have a lot of supporters, but we also have a lot of people who are questioning us. I think making a statement in this tournament will be a big thing for us.”
Was it the end?
When the Bisons, the A-Sun regular season champion, lost to Jacksonville in the finals of the conference tournament it was difficult for the players to wrap their emotions around the situation.
Was it the last match for the seniors? Was an RPI in the low 30s enough to earn them a second chance?
The Bisons returned from Fort Myers, Florida Sunday after the loss. They practiced Monday and Tuesday and then took two days off for Thanksgiving. They were back on the court Saturday and Sunday.
“It was really frustrating at first,” Ford, another co-captain, said. “We had expected to win. Coming back from that and having a `not knowing feeling’ was hard.
“Yes, we thought we would get in but we didn’t know. It kind of hit us as a team. Were we practicing in vain?”
Kellerman didn’t want the team to be remembered for the match with Jacksonville. The opportunity to continue to play has rejuvenated the team.
“All I could think about was how unfair it would be if that was our last game,” Kellerman said. “We didn’t deserve to go out like that. It wasn’t us.
“It was not representative of us at all. I just kept thinking if we get another chance then let’s do it right. Let’s feel good about it.”
Stout didn’t know if she should be mourning the end of her career or looking forward to something great.
Huston was bombarded with questions from family and friends.
“People were texting me and calling me and asking me how do you feel?” Houston said. “I didn’t know. It was a void.”
For the five seniors it was truly the icing on the cake of their first collegiate season to be part of an NCAA Tournament team.
It was the most incredible experience ever,” Stout said. “To go to a Division I school in the first place was an amazing feat as a freshman. But we flew down to Texas A&M and there were only four teams there including Kentucky and Dayton. That’s when you realize we are the cream of the crop. We are at the highest level.”
Dobson has redshirted this season and will have another chance to earn an NCAA berth in 2015. But she fondly remembers 2011.
“It was pure fun for me,” Dobson said. “It is something you dream about when you are growing up and playing volleyball. All through club volleyball there are people that think maybe you can’t be at that level. It is fun to go out there and show people that we should be there at that level.”
For Huston the opportunity brought out the inner little girl in her.
“We are all 10-year-old little girls inside,” Huston said. “I always wanted to play college volleyball. The very first year we got to go was inspiring to see how our seniors helped us through the season and how they led us. It is something we have all tried to aspire to be for our younger players because of how the seniors were with us.
“Freshman year it was more intimidating. This year I don’t feel any pressure. We are confident that we can compete with anybody. We have no fear. We are going to go out and give it our best and play the way we know how. We have had a lot of ups and down this season, but it never stopped us or discouraged us.”
Ford doesn’t remember any specific things that were said, but she remembers the theme of the weekend that the 2011 seniors stressed.
“They told us it was huge that we made it to the tournament,” Ford said. “The outcome didn’t matter as long as we want all out.”
Leading on a big stage
Stout thinks the Bisons were destined to be an at-large team. She thinks that puts them in a higher category than simply earning an automatic bid.
“Basically, it helps that the five of us have been there before so we know what it is like to be at that level,” Stout said. “We are not new to it. All we can do is encourage the younger players and tell them to not be afraid.
“We deserve to be here. We all fought for the same spots in this tournament and even better we got an at-large bid. It is more distinguishing to know we are supposed to be here and we can play against anyone, any time, any place.”
Ford wants the younger players to be even better than this year’s senior class when they graduate. The experience of playing in an NCAA Tournament helps with that growth.
“I would tell them (underclassmen) to always expect to play at this level,” Ford said. “They were recruited to this program because they are good enough to play at this level and exceed it. They are expected to do it.
“The alumni have got us this far. We expect the (underclassmen) to continue to push it forward. I want them to be better players than us. We are setting the pace right now but they have to follow it up and push harder than we have.”
Ford also wants the younger players to fully comprehend the accomplishment.
“We have made it to the top level of college volleyball,” Ford said. “It doesn’t t get better than that. Enjoy it and relish the time you have with your team and going out there and going hard.”
Huston has tried to provide as much support as possible to the underclassmen with an emphasis on the freshmen.
“I want to be there for each of the freshmen individually,” Huston said. “I want to root for them.”
Ready to go
In 2010 the Bisons faced Ohio State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. The Bisons lost the match 3-1.
The Bisons don’t worry about the name on the opposing team’s jersey. They have victories this season over nationally-ranked Kansas and Missouri, both coming on their home courts.
The Bisons are 33rd in this week’s RPI and Ohio State is 34th.
“I don’t think any of us are intimidated,” Dobson said. “It is exactly what we wanted. This is where we wanted to end up. We want to take this opportunity and run with it and do what we can with it.
“We are not feeling any pressure. That allows us to play free with fun, passion and excitement. That will help us.”
The Lady Bisons finished 7-6 in non-conference matches, the first time the seniors had reached a winning record in those matches. It was one of the goals for Lipscomb coach Brandon Rosenthal.
“Brandon has been harping on us since the beginning of the year that we are tired of being `that good enough’ team,” Ford said. “We are tired of competing and coming out on the losing side of preconference games.
“We didn’t want to be good enough to just compete with these teams, but to be better.”
Rosenthal is counting on his seniors to provide leadership because they have experienced a myriad of emotions as players.
“They are much more aware of what goes into it,” Rosenthal said. “When you go your freshman year you lose perspective of how hard it is to get there.
“They have been part of a team that didn’t make the A-Sun finals. They have gone through a couple of heart-breaking final losses in the conference tournament. They have been part of it all.”