Apr. 15—Dakota Wesleyan University grew leaps and bounds in a shortened and lengthened volleyball season.
The Tigers, who went 12-9 through the fall and spring seasons, were on the cusp of making their first NAIA national tournament since 1990. However, they were left on the outside looking in during Monday's selection show, capping off an unprecedented season filled with COVID-19 obstacles.
"It felt like it was a lifetime of a season kind of just with the fall and the spring," DWU coach Lindsay Wilber said. "But I felt pretty good about it. I feel like we made a lot of growth."
The Great Plains Athletic Conference, perennially the top NAIA volleyball conference, brought in the highest number of qualifiers to the field with five qualifying teams: Concordia, Dordt, Jamestown, Midland and Northwestern. The Tigers were swept by Concordia in the GPAC opening round on April 3.
Building respect: DWU volleyball works to make a name for itself
DWU was without GPAC freshman of the year Ady Dwight (ankle) in the match and its also been battling some illnesses, said Wilber. She relayed that to Northwestern College coach Kyle Van Den Bosch, the conference's national rater.
"I had to let him know what was going on with our team," Wilber said. "Just because you want to be fair with what product you are going to bring to the tournament. I want it to be the first time we are going to nationals, that we are not limping into nationals. We are putting forward our best product, I already knew Monday that we weren't going to make it."
Wilber, who finished her seventh season as DWU's coach, said not making nationals doesn't diminish the Tigers' season. In fact, it's only fueled the fire.
She said players have already discussed open gyms, have attacked their lifting workouts and the young group is itching to finish what they started.
"I have a young, fiery group that wants to just keep plugging away and they like being with each other," Wilber said. "So we already started lifting this week. We are not taking a pause at all and this summer will be fun to see just how much better we get."
It's already a head start compared to last year at this time. The Tigers, like everyone else, weren't allowed to compete in spring activities due to COVID-19.
"We will have open gyms and they will actually be able to lift in a facility where they were shut down for a part of last year," Wilber said. "It will be really nice and last year, we had two open gyms and we had to go outside. So I didn't even see how good my freshmen were going to be."
They'll have a familiar stable of returners next season, too. Senior defensive specialist Sara Herman won't be back next season, but everybody else will return.
Due to COVID, the fall and winter sport athletes will not be charged a season of competition for any competition from May 16, 2020 to May 15, 2021. Wilber said some athletes might consider taking advantage of the extra season, but those will be conversations in the future.
As it stands right now, the Tigers will have 27 players on next year's roster, including 11 incoming freshmen. Wilber singled out Wagner's Abby Brunsing (outside hitter), Minnesota's Callie Slagter (defensive specialist) and Tess Jones (outside hitter/setter) as potential impact players as freshmen.
"Overall, it's another athletic group that's going to really push this group," Wilber said.