Many times, talent is not always the telling factor in championship runs for athletic teams. The intangibles is usually what sets them apart.
The 2012 Ottawa University volleyball team will be remembered as one of the best in school history. The Lady Braves are on the verge of an undefeated Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference run. Ottawa needs two victories this weekend on the road to complete the regular-season sweep.
Ottawa clinched its fourth conference title overall and third KCAC championship Monday with a straight sets win over Bethel in Wilson Field House.
The Lady Braves (25-5, 16-0) understand there is more to accomplish and did not have a big celebration. The mission is not completed.
“Teams will either get better, stay the same or get worse. We want to get better,” senior Kristen Hendrickson said. “Kansas Wesleyan is good. We will be playing them on their senior night [on Saturday].”
Winning a championship is still an emotional moment.
“I started to tear up after coach said we were conference champions,” senior libero Katie Jensen said. “We have come a long way since our freshman year. We have gotten better every year. We are very determined. We wanted this so bad.”
“It is nice to get something like this,” senior setter Chrissie Jeannin said about the regular-season title. “We have to play like we have been playing. We have to keep pushing. It would be nice to finish it off.”
Step by step process
Putting together a special season like this has been process. Coach Tom Symons took over the program four years ago after the Lady Braves went 5-29 in 2008.
This year’s senior group was his first recruiting class. One which he got onto late because of his hiring in the early part of 2009. His first team won 14 matches and Ottawa won 18 and finished second in the KCAC in 2010. The Lady Braves slipped to 15 wins and fifth place in 2011.
The returners made it mission to put those disappointments behind and work on becoming a championship-caliber team.
Hendrickson said this past spring was a turning point.
“We were in the weight room every Tuesday and Thursday mornings,” she said. “We came in on our own [to work] and during the summer to get better.”
Jeannin said it did not happen overnight.
“It has been a long time coming,” she said. “We have really good chemistry. We all want to win. Everybody is ready to play every point.”
Jensen said the players grew together during the off-season.
“We are like a family,” Jensen said. “It does not matter who coach puts on the floor. We can always adjust. We can all play with each other.”
Hendrickson said, “We came together and played as a team. We worked really hard.”
Hendrickson, Jensen and Jeannin have been part of Symons’ program from the start. The trio has been the backbone of the team for four years.
Hendrickson has been all-conference performer every season. Jensen is a two-time all-conference player. Jeannin has been a stalwart at running the team.
Hendrickson and Jensen grew up together playing volleyball on the same club teams and at Ottawa High School.
“Katie, it will be hard to stop playing with her,” Hendrickson said. “She has always been that one person I could go and talk to you because I known her so long. I feel really comfortable playing with her. It helps a lot.
“Chrissie, we have gotten really close over the years. It helps to have that connection.”
Through the years, Symons kept adding pieces to the puzzle. The Lady Braves are a well-rounded team in all parts of the game.
“We have not had as many hitters as we do this year. It is nice to mix it up,” Jeannin said.
Hendrickson said opponents can’t defend the whole Lady Braves’ arsenal.
“They never know who we are going to go to. Our blocking has really improved,” she said.
Jensen and Jeannin have Black and Gold running in their veins. Both had older sisters play for the Lady Braves volleyball team.
Jensen’s sister Kaci [Bethel] Evans played on the 2001 KCAC championship team. Jeannin’s older sister, Laura, played from 2005 to 2008 and is among the program leaders in digs for a match, season and career.
For Jensen, this was her final chance to match her sister’s team success.
“I have been telling the girls all year long we have to win conference,” Jensen said. “Kaci was my coach growing up. It was a huge bond. She was No. 6 in college. I wanted to be like my big sister. That is why I chose the number.”
Jensen was part of the 2001 group. She spent time with the players on the bench.
“It does not seem that long ago. It seemed like it was yesterday, I was bringing water to the girls,” Jensen said. “I remember going to nationals with Kaci’s team.”
Now she can’t wait for the opportunity to play in the NAIA Tournament for her hometown team with many of her best friends.
A special time indeed.
Ottawa and Franklin County sports can be followed on twitter @ottawasports1