Mar. 23—Coming into spring, the Dakota Wesleyan University volleyball team is preparing for a bunch of firsts.
On that list includes the Tigers' first Great Plains Athletic Conference tournament in team history and potentially, their first bid to the NAIA tournament since 1990. But mainly, it's the first time they've ever had a spring season with so much on the line.
When the fall season ended, the Tigers were 12-8 overall and 8-8 in the conference, good for the No. 6 seed in the GPAC tournament. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the conference tournament was moved to the spring, aligning just ahead of the NAIA national tournament.
So DWU when travels to Seward, Neb., on April 3 to take on No. 10-ranked Concordia University, it will be a key match to determine if DWU can make the NAIA tournament. The Tigers won the lone regular-season match in five sets on Oct. 21 at the Corn Palace.
This spring also marks the first time for DWU coach Lindsay Wilber that her team has started receiving votes in the national poll.
"It's crazy," sophomore hitter Mackenzie Miller said. "We were ranked 10th in the preseason (in the GPAC) coming in? I think now that we've shown what we can do, I think everyone on campus, everyone in the community has been congratulating us, asking, 'Oh, what do you guys play next?' I think that's just a really cool part of it to finally be recognized as a winning team."
DWU features only one senior in defensive specialist Sara Herman on the team heading into the tournament.
"I think that one of the benefits we have is we are a young team," Wilber said. "We have gotten better and improved so much since last fall and we are motivated. I do think that is a little different than an older team ... to try to keep those girls motivated."
DWU is led by middle blocker Ady Dwight, who was named a first-team all-conference selection and conference freshman of the year after recording 244 kills, 3.2 kills per set and 1.1 blocks per set during the season. Sophomore setter Madeline Else was a second-team selection along with defensive specialist Hanna Reiff and outside hitter Mariah Gloe as honorable mentions.
"It's a big deal, because the freshman of the year isn't always a first-team selection," Wilber said. "It's been probably about three or four years since the freshman has been first team so that was really fun. And she's only gotten better."
In preparation for the Tigers match on April 3, DWU traveled to Orange City, Iowa to scrimmage other GPAC schools Jamestown, Northwestern and Midland. The conference is among the deepest in NAIA with five ranked teams in the top-20 nationally, led by No. 1 Jamestown, while Northwestern is seventh and Midland is 19th.
"It was a really good day. I saw a lot of just good positives," Wilber said. "It was just good to play against that competition. Because you know, you can play in your gym all day long. But you know seeing those big heavy hitters, that was good for our defense."
While schools adjusted their schedules due to the COVID-19 pandemic, DWU believes they were the only school in the conference that didn't have to reschedule because of a virus within their team.
"We weren't able to do some of the things that we had planned before, like, go on faraway trips, and things like that. But we got pretty lucky," Dwight said. "We kind of like stayed in our bubble, and we were able to navigate COVID unlike some of the other teams, so we actually got to play all of our games."
DWU has another scrimmage planned for this afternoon, traveling to Sioux City, Iowa for a pair of scrimmages against Briar Cliff and Morningside.
While some on the team would have rather played the postseason back in the fall, others think having something to play for in the spring is fun.
"It's different, like actually competing for something, it's hard to know how to feel about it. And we've never been in this position before. We've never been in the playoffs," Wilber said.
"I think this has been so much fun, because playing it and now in the postseason has really allowed us to honestly just play more volleyball," junior outside hitter Jadie DeLange said. "Usually, our spring season is a lot of lifting and conditioning. But now with our postseason in the spring, it's a lot more volleyball."
While DWU could be one-and-done in the conference tournament, Wilber said other coaches throughout the GPAC tell her they believe the Tigers could be selected for the NAIA National Tournament scheduled to begin on April 17.
Like basketball, the NAIA is playing in one division in 2020-21, but instead of the planned 64-team event, only 48 will make the national tournament due to the pandemic. The tournament field will be announced April 12.
This year the NAIA has modified its selection to factor in strength of schedule, a big plus for the Tigers looking to make the national tournament, according to Wilber.
"I think we're good enough. Other coaches tell me we're good enough," Wilber said. "So we'll just have to see, you know, beating Concordia on April 3, would solidify it, which I think we can do."