One Word To Describe 2011: Successful|
Dec. 13, 2011
By Shawn Sell
Like so many times in recent years, the 2011 UC Volleyball season was another memorable campaign. A BIG EAST Championship, a win over crosstown rival Xavier, the continuance of the nation's longest home court winning streak and the 10th NCAA Tournament appearance in program history are just some of the high points of the recently completed season. Despite a heartbreaking conclusion, the success achieved by head coach Reed Sunahara and his players will long outweigh the pain of the final match.
The 2011 season opened with high expectation, but the Bearcats actually stumbled out of the gates. Losses in their first three contests, albeit all against eventual NCAA Tournament qualifiers left Sunahara and company scratching their collective heads. An early season line-up switch that saw junior Jordanne Scott moved to the right-side hitter position proved key, as the Bearcats bounced back with marquee wins over NCAA teams Kentucky and Oklahoma. As Scott got more acclimated to her new role, so too did the Bearcats as success started to follow the UC squad.
"Once Jordanne starting feeling comfortable with that, we started getting much better," Sunahara says. "Moving her from the left to the right was key. The other thing was figuring out how to coach this team. This is a different team and I thought my staff did a good job of coaching them."
As the schedule flipped to predominately BIG EAST play, one thing that didn't change was the Bearcats' fortunes inside the friendly confines of Fifth Third Arena. UC flew through the major portion of the non-conference slate and the full BIG EAST home schedule unbeaten to stretch the longest home court winning streak in the nation to 48. That streak would ultimately end in the next-to-last regular season contest of the year, but registered as the 14th longest such streak in NCAA history.
As steady as the Bearcats played on their home court, they received the same level of consistency from the lone senior on the 2011 squad, Missy Harpenau. Thrust from the shadows of All-American Stephanie Niemer, Harpenau wrote her own chapter in UC annals with a senior year to remember. A first team All-BIG EAST and all-region selection, Harpenau played with a surgically repaired shoulder this fall and never missed a beat, drawing the praise of her head coach.
"Missy is a trooper, a warrior," Sunahara says. "She took a lot of swings and didn't complain and was a catalyst of our success. Without her, I think we are just an average team; we wouldn't have had the strong outside (hitter) that we normally do. With her in there, she was a stabilizer and helped us get through a lot of our matches that would have been tougher without her."
While the Bearcats will have to bid farewell to Harpenau, who this fall became just the sixth UC player ever with 1,000 career kills and 1,000 career digs, there is no shortage of talent remaining on the roster. Led by a strong junior class that features Scott, along with regular starters Becca Refenes and Emily Hayden, Sunahara is pleased with where his program sits with the 2011 season now in the rearview.
"I think we have the talent (returning) but every year is different and if we don't work hard, we won't get better," he says. "Hopefully, our kids will continue to work hard and make sure they are going to be the best they can. It's all in attitude; if they have good attitudes, then we can go far. If they continue to work hard in the class room, in the weight room and on the court, I truly believe we can achieve a lot of our goals again next year."
While Harpenau and other upperclassmen drew many of the headlines, one player that was a huge factor in UC's impressive season was freshman setter Caylin Mahoney. After winning the starting job from the outset, Mahoney went on to earn second team all-conference honors, finishing second in the league with 11.04 assists per set. As good as Mahoney was this year, Sunahara feels the sky's the limit for the native Texan.
"I thought she had a great year and in my opinion was the best setter in the conference," he assesses. "She learned a lot and I think she improved 100%. She got better as each match went on and from what she has done from then to now is night and day. Hopefully she can continue that with the experience she got this year, and if so that will be a good thing."
The obvious highlight from the 2011 season came on Nov. 20th when the Bearcats were crowned the BIG EAST Tournament Champions, securing the first conference tournament championship for any UC sport since joining the BIG EAST. Along with the title came the league's automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament and UC did nothing to disappoint on the big stage. Searching for the first Sweet 16 trip in program history, the Bearcats came up just short in gut-wrenching fashion. After rallying from a two sets to one deficit and down 13-11 in the deciding fifth set of their second round contest, the Bearcats moved within two points of victory by tying it at 13. But Florida State, who ultimately has advanced to the NCAA Final Four, got the last laugh, crushing the Bearcats' dreams by scoring the match's last two points. Despite the heartbreak, Sunahara and company will use the tough ending as motivation going forward.
"I hope the end of the season left a bad taste in their mouths," he says of his returning players. "They were so close and they want to get there again. Winning is hard. It's never easy and every year is different. You can have all the talent, but if you don't maximize the talent and work as hard as you can, then you aren't going to get where you want. Hopefully, they continue working hard and we will make sure we go in the right direction."
Head Volleyball Coach Reed Sunahara has built a tradition of excellence during his long tenure at UC. That tradition added another winning chapter this fall and not even a heartbreaking ending can alter calling 2011 anything but a success.