Midland University keeps some pretty elite company in volleyball.
The 11th-ranked Lady Warriors will be appearing in the national tournament starting Tuesday in Sioux City, Iowa, for the fifth consecutive season. Only Columbia (Missouri), Georgetown (Kentucky), Lindsey Wilson (Kentucky), Madonna (Michigan) and Park (Missouri) can also make that claim.
“I’m really proud of how this team has persevered through some adversity this year to make the national championship tournament again,” Midland coach Paul Giesselmann said. “It is great for our seniors to finish their careers there. I don’t know how deep we’ll be able to go, but I know they’ll compete hard in every match. For us to finish the season at nationals is big.”
The Lady Warriors, who open pool play at 3 p.m. against Marian (Indiana), advanced to the Final Four last season before falling to eventual national runner-up and Great Plains Athletic Conference rival Dordt. The Defenders lost to Hastings, also of the GPAC, in the championship match.
Hastings, ranked third, and Dordt, No. 4, are back at nationals again. FIfth-ranked Northwestern (Iowa) and host school Morningside are other GPAC schools also in the 32-team national event. Facing quality competition every night in league play has helped prepare MU for Sioux City.
“I think playing our conference schedule is a big benefit for us,” Midland junior outside hitter Jenny Bair said. “Every night teams give you their best shot. You have to be physically and mentally prepared for that. We might not know much about some of these other teams, but we do play in the toughest conference in the United States and that is a big help for us.”
The Lady Warriors will play Saint Xavier (Illinois) at 4 Wednesday afternoon before closing pool play against sixth-ranked Westmont (California) at 4 Thursday afternoon. The top two teams in the eight pools advance to a single-elimination tournament starting Friday.
“I feel like it is about as good of a pool as we could’ve hoped for,” Giesselmann said. “Westmont is really, really talented, but I think Marian, Saint Xavier and us are equally balanced teams. I feel like we could beat any of the teams, but we could also lose to any of them. It is a pretty balanced pool.”
The Lady Warriors swept Saint Xavier in three sets back on Aug. 25 during a tournament in Chicago. They haven’t played Marian or Westmont this season.
Midland hasn’t played since getting swept by Hastings in the GPAC Tournament semifinals on Nov. 8. Bair said not playing a match for more than two weeks shouldn’t hinder the Lady Warriors.
“It was really nice to have that time away,” the Clarinda, Iowa, native said. “I like the physical break, but I also liked the mental break of just practicing on fundamental things and not having to worry about a game the next day.”
Giesselmann said that the layoff in previous seasons has helped his team.
“I think after the GPAC grind our kids just need a mental break, especially this year,” he said. “We’ve been banged up and the time off from matches was good for the kids.”
All-American setter Jessica Peters (foot) and libero Jessica Nekl (leg) are among the players who were bothered by injuries this year.
“We’re probably as healthy as we can get this late in the year,” Giesselmann said. “Jess (Peters) still has foot issues, but she is a tough kid and we’re going to manage her through the tournament.”
Midland practiced in Sioux City Sunday and had the national championship banquet Monday night. Players such as Bair, Peters, middle blocker Priscilla O’Dowd, Nekl and rightside hitter Shelby Bretschneider are used to the national stage.
“It definitely helps our confidence that we’ve been there before,” Bair said. “Practicing there brought back a lot of memories. I think having that experience eases all of our jitters.”