BELLINGHAM, Wash. --- -
Heading into the 2007 season, no one could have guessed that the Western Washington University volleyball team would still be playing by Thanksgiving, much less Dec. 1.
But there were the Vikings, competing in the championship match of the National Collegiate Athletic Association Division II National Tournament at Topeka, Kansas, against Concordia-St. Paul.
And even more improbable, Western was leading 29-28 with a game-point serve that could send the best three-out-of-five match to a decisive fifth set.
The storybook finish eluded the Vikings as Concordia-St. Paul scored the next three points to win the game and match as the Golden Bears began an incredible string of seven national titles.
Nevertheless, Western's national runner-up placing was the best in program history. Not bad for a team that was not ranked among the top 25 nationally during the regular season.
The Vikings finished with a 26-5 record, which included a 21-match winning streak. They took the Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship (17-1), won their first NCAA II Pacific Regional title and were rated No.2 in the final American Volleyball Coaches Association/NCAA II Top 25 Poll.
"They really broke down barriers that season and set the bar for what was possible, not only for our program, but for our conference as well," said WWU head coach Diane Flick-Williams, now in her 17th season. "After they went, people talked about nationals in a different way. Before, it was always for somebody else. Nationals were now attainable."
"It was a weird feeling at the end because I was so proud of my team, which accomplished things we never knew were possible. But we still felt like we should have won."
In the national semifinals, Western upset No.4-ranked and host Washburn KS, 3 games to 1, before 2,015 fans, the most ever to watch the Vikings play. The Lady Blues had not lost in their previous 17 home matches that season.
"The more that the crowd jeered at our players, the better they played," said Flick-Williams. "It didn't bother them, it probably actually fueled their fire."
"The thing I remember most when we finished that match and were celebrating in the middle of the court, was (senior setter) Katie Robinson looking at me and mouthing, `What did we just do?' and I said, `I don't know!'"
"That was my favorite match," added senior outside hitter Jaime Anderson. "When people yell at you and scream at you, all you want to do is prove them wrong and it is so much fun when you can. I loved it and sometimes they came up with some really clever insults which made it even more entertaining."
Western had swept Dowling NY in the first round of its first Elite Eight appearance, but lost junior outside hitter Marissa Hill with a torn MCL. Freshman Megan Amundson moved into the rotation and she responded with a standout performance in the semifinal against Washburn.
The Vikings won their first regional crown by sweeping No.3-ranked and host Cal State San Bernardino in the final. They opened with a sweep of Chico State, but in the semifinals, were down 2-0 to defending champion UC San Diego before rallying to win in five games.
Flick-Williams said, "I remember talking with Jaime (Anderson) after the UC San Diego match and her saying, `Anything from here on out is gravy!'"
Prior to the wins at regionals over UC San Diego and Cal State San Bernardino, the Vikings had won just two of 13 matches against those schools.
"We didn't want to lose to any California team ever, ever again," emphasized Anderson. "That had been so annoying, to have that keep happening."
After being ranked No.23 in the AVCA preseason poll, Western began its season with losses in four of its first nine matches, two of those being to No.1 Tampa and No.3 Cal State San Bernardino. The Vikings were not ranked nationally again until the week of the regional tournament.
In its third match, the 1-1 Vikings faced defending national champion Tampa and found themselves down 23-3 in the second game of a three-set loss. At that point, Flick-Williams took out all the starters and replaced them with freshmen, asking the first-year players to reach 10 points before Tampa got to 30, which they did (30-10).
"I remember sitting on the bench with all the starters and thinking, "What the hell is happening?" said Anderson. "Yes, it was early in the year and we hadn't played that level of competition yet, but that was a huge wake up call."
"And it says a lot about the people on that team, how everyone was so motivated and competitive. So when that happened, we said that this is never going to happen again. We hated not being the best and being beaten. We definitely changed a lot after that match."
It was on the Tuesday following the season-opening Tampa Invitational that Flick-William's father passed away following a long battle with cancer. He was part of the reason for Western's slogan that season, "Just for Today."
"It put in perspective that you need to do your best every day because you never know," Flick-Williams said. "It was a phrase that I came across when my dad was sick."
"The response of the team during that period was very good. They took it upon themselves to start learning and growing and getting better, and really buying into the fact that we were going to learn every day."
Following a road loss at Western Oregon on Sept. 8 in their second league match, the Vikings did not taste defeat again until the national title contest.
Senior libero Courtney Schneider established national records for season (7.74) and career (7.00) digs per game, having a NCAA II tournament record 44 digs against Washburn. A first-team AVCA and second-team Daktronics All-American, she finished with respective season and career totals of 851 and 2,695, both school and GNAC records.
"Courtney was pretty serious all the time," Flick-Williams said. "She was our best offense sometimes because she stopped the opponent's offense and started ours."
Schneider was one of four Vikings named to the national all-tournament team along with junior middle blocker Angie Alvord, senior outside hitter Jaime Anderson and senior setter Katie Robinson. Anderson and junior middle blocker Tiana Roma also were honorable mention AVCA All-Americans.
Anderson led Western in kills with 435 (3.95) and was third in digs (350, 3.18) and service aces (34, 0.31) and fourth in blocks (74, 0.67). Roma was the league leader in attack percentage at .358, while being second on the team in blocks (101, 0.92) and third in kills (325, 2.95).
"I thought that Jaime (Anderson) was the glue to our group," said Flick-Williams, who was named AVCA Pacific Region and GNAC Coach of the Year. "She had that nice blend of intensity, she was kind of goofy, so she brought humor, but she got things done."
Robinson led the GNAC in assists with 1,340 (12.18) and was second on the team in aces (50, 0.45), while Alvord was second (No.12 nationally) in the GNAC in blocks (153, 1.38), third in attack percentage at .324 with 296 kills (2.69) and fourth in aces (66, 0.60).
Selected to the Pacific Regional all-tourney team were Alvord, Anderson, Schneider and senior outside hitter Emily Castro. Castro was second on the squad in both kills (385, 3.53) and digs (363, 3.33).
"Katie (Robinson) and Angie (Alvord) were a blend of intensity and competitiveness, but they could make me laugh at the drop of a hat," recalled Flick-Williams.
Anderson, Roma and Schneider were first-team AVCA Pacific Region all-stars. Schneider also was a first-team Daktronics Pacific Region all-star, with Anderson receiving second-team honors. It was Schneider's third selection to both squads.
Schneider, who was the GNAC Player of the Year, was a first-team all-league pick for the third straight time. Robinson and Roma also were first-team choices with Anderson being a second-team selection and Alvord and Castro receiving honorable mention.
Also in the regular rotation were Hill and freshman defensive specialist Allison Gotz. Hill had 149 kills (1.67) and 81 blocks (0.91), and Gotz had 175 digs (1.65).
Schneider was a second-team ESPN The Magazine/CoSIDA District 8 Academic all-star, and she and Roma were GNAC academic all-stars.
Western led the conference in nearly every statistical category, having huge advantages in attack percentage (.254 to .147), aces (223 to 123) and blocks (281.5 to 140.0).
But the individual accolades, statistics and records were secondary to what the 2007 team was all about.
"They believed in the dream and made it happen," Flick said. "They worked hard and made everybody around them better. You can't ask for more than that ... There was just a really great team feel amongst that group. They all played for each other and with each other."
"The freedom with which they played. I don't think they ever worked at practice, they played at practice. There was never a day where we felt that we were toiling through it. They had this way about themselves where they enjoyed playing ball, enjoyed getting in the gym, so it was fun to be there every day and coach them and try to learn something new. They liked challenges, so they never steered away from them, something new for us to try, and they liked that kind of stuff. That made them successful because whatever came, they had an answer for it."
Anderson felt that the Vikings fed off of being overlooked and not being ranked in the top 25 nationally the entire regular season.
"A lot of us were really motivated by the fact that we weren't really expected to be amazing," she said. "That we were going to be good in the GNAC and that was going to be it for us ... We were all so competitive, that it was kind of motivating to have that kind of underdog status. I know that made us work harder throughout the season. I loved the fact that people (at nationals) thought of us as this team from Western Washington who nobody had ever heard of."
"We really had a great group of people, who really honestly were playing for the people next to them ... We just knew how to work things out and if we had any problems, we could talk about them and get everything out there. We wanted to make sure that everything we were doing was about volleyball and getting where we wanted to go."
By Paul Madison who served 48 years as sports information director at WWU from 1966 to 2015
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