It is a rare occasion when any team can conclude their season as national champions, but that is exactly what the PLNU volleyball team did. The Sea Lions capped off a surprising and hard-fought season last week by capturing the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) Championship in Kissimmee, Fla.
PLNU began the season picked to place sixth in the Pacific West Conference preseason polls. Head coach Sarah Gustin brought back a very young team in her third season. The returners were nearly all sophomores, and although they each saw minutes in PacWest play in 2012, most were still by definition very inexperienced. PLNU lost just two players from its 2012 team, but at the critical positions of setter and libero, and were counting on the additional year of maturity from the young team to pay great dividends. Coach Gustin was able to turn inward to fill the holes at setter with sophomore Savannah Wedemeyer stepping into the starting spot and former NAIA All-American Alyssa Dwyer returning to middle blocker after redshirting the previous season with an injury. Filling the libero spot was not as easy. Coach Gustin hit the recruiting trail and brought in a quality freshman, Christin Fisher, out of Vista Murrieta High School.
When the team came together in fall camp, there was an aura around it that couldn’t be identified, but was evident from the first serve. The letter-winners returned with focus, strength, and team unity. This was particularly apparent in the sophomore group. Coach Gustin turned to Wedemeyer to take over at setter in her 6-1 system. On the outside, preseason All-PacWest selection Kelli LeClair was joined by Heather Leavitt, who turned heads every step of the way during camp. The Sea Lions knew what they were getting from Dwyer on the court in terms of performance, but her impact on the team might have been even greater in her leadership role. Dwyer was the vocal leader on the floor for the team all camp and into the season. She gave the Sea Lions that additional edge, confidence, and swagger. Juniors McKensey Wise and Delaney McCraney helped stabilize the middle and opposite side hitter positions, respectively, while Fisher stepped in flawlessly to take over as starting libero.
As always, the Sea Lions opened the season at home by hosting their annual Seaside Invitational. PLNU won both its matches on the opening day, but it wasn’t until coming from behind to win a five-setter with Cal State Dominguez Hills in the third match of the season that everyone started to take notice. PLNU went 4-0 in its opening tournament and then picked up a win against San Diego Christian to start the year 5-0. PLNU then scuffled at the UC San Diego tournament, going just 1-3. However, their lone win was one of the Sea Lions’ most impressive of the season as it defeated No. 18 Cal State San Bernardino in five sets. CSUSB would go 27-6 on the season and receive the No. 1 seed in the NCAA West Regional.
PacWest play then started for PLNU. It opened conference play with 11 straight wins and sat in first place in the PacWest standings for much of the early season. Along the way, the volleyball team made PLNU history. On Oct. 14, the Sea Lions were ranked 25th by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, which is the official ranking party for the NCAA. This is the first time in PLNU history that any athletic team has been ranked in an NCAA poll. The Sea Lions’ winning streak snapped on the road at BYU-Hawaii in four sets. The team dropped out of the top 25, but returned to the rankings multiple times during the season. PLNU completed its regular season at 23-7 and 16-4 in the PacWest. The Sea Lions finished in sole possession of second place in the conference standings—the school’s best finish in its two-year association with the PacWest.
PLNU was recognized throughout the conference for its outstanding season. The Sea Lions led the PacWest in first-team all-conference selections and placed four on the All-PacWest squad. Dwyer was voted the PacWest Newcomer of the Year after ranking fifth in the league with 3.35 kills per set and ranking third with a .344 hitting percentage. Leavitt joined her on the all-conference first team after leading the Sea Lions and ranking third in the PacWest with 3.96 kills per match. She was also 14th in digs per set (3.58). LeClair gave PLNU three first-team All-PacWest selections. She fulfilled the coaches’ season predictions by earning first-team honors after ranking eighth in the league in kills (3.25) and 18th in digs (3.16). Wedemeyer represented the Sea Lions on the second team after just one setter qualified for the first-team squad. Wedemeyer led the league in total assists (1182) and ranked second in the conference with 11.37 assists per set. Gustin was also voted as the co-Coach of the Year by her peers.
Even though PLNU is in its final year of transition to the NCAA and therefore not allowed to play in its postseason contests, the Sea Lions still had the opportunity to continue their season after PacWest play as part of the NCCAA. PLNU took down Azusa Pacific in the West Regional Championship to earn the automatic bid from the West into the national championships in Kissimmee, Fla.
The Sea Lions received the No. 1 seed at the NCCAAs and won all four of their matches in pool play to advance to the national semifinals. PLNU faced off against the No. 2 seed, Lee, in the semifinals and swept the Flames en route to advancing to the championship match. In the final they saw a familiar opponent: Azusa Pacific. This was the fourth time this season the Sea Lions faced the Cougars. Each team won at home in the PacWest season, and then PLNU took the regional final from APU to earn the automatic bid. In the finals, PLNU set out to prove once and for all it was the best team in the tournament. PLNU won each of the first two sets against APU and went on to close out the match in four sets to become the 2013 NCCAA champions.
Dwyer was named the Most Outstanding Player of the national championships, and she was joined on the all-tournament team by Wedemeyer. Wedemeyer also added multiple other awards to her resume, as she was also named the NCCAA Player of the Year and a first-team All-American. Dwyer was also a first-team All-American selection, and Leavitt was voted to the second team.
PLNU finished the season at 30-7, tripling its win total from the 2012 season (10-17) and earning the most wins for any PLNU team since 2001 when the Sea Lions went 35-4.
By Danny Barnts