Ten returning letter winners, five returning starters and one brand new coach have led the Augustana University volleyball team to an 8-4 start this season.
Four seniors return to the roster this year: middle blocker Ashley Wilson, setter Alex Banker, libero Tahlyr Banks and 2016 All-NSIC first team member and right-side hitter Bailey Koch.
The Vikings suffered two 5-set losses over the past weekend, losing to first-ranked Southwest Minnesota State and to the University of Sioux Falls.
The team lost another narrow match on the road against 18th ranked Wayne State University, with Wayne State taking the 5th set 16-11.
“We took two hard losses [before Wayne State],” says Koch. “Which is just motivation for us to work harder and utilize each touch on a ball.”
The Vikings started the season 3-1 at the Oredigger Classic in Golden, Colorado, picking up wins against 15th ranked California State University, San Bernardino, Rollins College and Eastern New Mexico University.
The team suffered its only defeat of the tournament against Regis University in a 3-0 loss.
After winning the home opener in a 3-0 victory over Texas A&M-Kingsville, the Vikings headed to Saint Charles, Missouri for the Lindenwood Challenge, where the team went undefeated, beating Truman State University, Lindenwood University, Saint Mary’s University (Texas) and the University of Illinois at Springfield.
Assistant Coach Ellen Andrews says that the team’s ability to handle adversity has been key to their success.
“We were supposed to go to Florida for a tournament, but due to Hurricane Irma, we ended up changing plans late to go to Missouri instead,” said Andrews. “So our travel plans, opponents, etcetera all changed at the last minute, but our team responded with a 4-0 weekend.”
Wilson said that the experienced roster has translated well to the court.
“I think having a lot of experienced players on our team has been a huge factor in the success we have had so far this season,” said Wilson. “A lot of the girls we have on the court have been starting or at least seeing time on the court for three or four years now.”
Banks, named NSIC Libero of the Year in 2016, set a single-season school record with 662 digs total last season. Banks is Augustana’s second overall in career digs with 1,968 total, and was chosen as Augustana’s Player to Watch by the NSIC preseason coaches’ poll for the second year in a row.
Junior outside hitter Courtney Place, also a 2016 All-NSIC first team member, returns to the roster as well.
After finishing 2016 with a record of 27-6, the Vikings made the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2008.
Wilson and Banks say that the success of last season leaves the team hungry for more.
“Our mindset for this season is to take it one match at a time. Coming off our season last year, where we made it to the tournament and fell short, that has definitely shaped our goals,” said Banks. “We’re working towards returning to the tournament and going even further than we did last year, but in the end it comes down to one match, and even one point at a time.”
“Prior to last year, no one on our team had seen the postseason tournament,” said Wilson. “And I think being a part of that has made us want it that much more.”
Currently ranked 12th in the American Volleyball Coaches Association Division II poll, the Vikings have high hopes for the rest of the season.
“A national championship is not out of reach for this team if we play to the best of our ability each time we step on the court,” said Wilson.