This year’s best story in NMU sports is the re-emergence of the Northern volleyball team to national prominence after a disappointing 2006 season.
The 2006 season saw the ‘Cats jump out to an 11-0 start before collapsing and going 5-11 in their last 16 games to finish the season 8-10 in the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) and 16-11 overall. Head coach Qi Wang resigned at the end of the season.
With Qi’s resignation, the national search for a new coach was on. NMU’s athletic department brought in two coaches, Wick Cholchagoff and Terry Gamble, to interview for the position. Two weeks later, NMU thought it had found the head coach of the future when they named Gamble to the position. Days later, Gamble resigned for family reasons and the coaching search began again. The search ended for good in February when NMU signed former Michigan Tech assistant, and Cameron State head coach, Dominic Yoder.
Yoder was a relative unknown to most fans of NMU volleyball. Many people in the community felt the team was grasping at straws with the hire after Gamble’s unexpected rejection of the team.
Yoder’s team entered the season with low expectations–the team was ranked 5th in the GLIAC North Preseason Coaches Poll. The Wildcats did little in their first tournament to change anyone’s mind about those low expectations, getting shutout in the season opening Concordia St. Paul tournament in St. Paul, Minn.
The team lost its next match 0-3 to the University of Minnesota-Moorehead. Following that loss, the team turned things around in a big way–winning six in a row, and 20 of their final 27 to finish the season. Among those 20 wins was a win over national top 10–and GLIAC leading–Grand Valley. Grand Valley went on to finish 17-1 in the GLIAC and ranked 5th in the final national rankings.
One of the biggest reasons for the team’s resurgent season is the All-GLIAC play of junior Caryn VanBeckum, senior Brittany McGowan and junior Breanne Zaremba. VanBeckum and McGowan were both first team All-GLIAC selections and Zaremba earned All-GLIAC honorable mention honors.
This spring, the team has continued the turnaround, posting a 10-3 record in exhibition play at three tournaments and a home match against Lake State. A 10-3 record is successful against any level of NCAA competition, but what makes Northern’s 10 wins so special is that four of them (Eastern Michigan, Toledo, Cleveland State and Oakland) have come against Division-I teams. Factor in close losses to perennial “big school” powers Notre Dame, Purdue and Michigan and it would be easy to mistake the ‘Cats for a successful D-I program.
I know people will say that its only exhibition play and it doesn’t count yet, but if NMU’s basketball team beat the four teams that the volleyball team has played–even in exhibition games, fans would catch Wildcat fever and the Berry Events Center would be packed for every home game.
When the Wildcats open their season next year they will try to reharness this momentum and take the team back to the NCAA tournament and hopefully the 2008 NMU volleyball team will be hoisting the championship trophy at the end of the tournament.
The 2007-08 NMU volleyball team is truly this year’s sports story of the year because the team could have given up last season when they lost 11 of the last 16 games in the 2006 season, or when they started the 2007 season with an 0-5 record, but they didn’t, and after rallying to finish the season 8th in the Great Lakes Regional Poll, the team now has four wins against D-I schools and a 10-3 spring board to jump into next year’s season.