CEDAR RAPIDS — A few weeks ago, the Kirkwood volleyball team gathered before practice inside a classroom at Johnson Hall and got its mind right.
A season of ups, downs and growing pains was nearing its end. If the Eagles were to return to the national tournament for the second straight year, they would have to harness their impressive collection of individual talent and fulfill their potential by playing as one.
“We all sat down and had a change of mind,” Kirkwood sophomore middle hitter Taylor Carey said. “We all got on the same page. That is when we felt, on the volleyball court, everything felt better. It is honestly just us mentally buying in and totally being committed to this and longing for the national tournament.”
A renewed commitment to the team concept bore immediate fruit, as the 14th-ranked Eagles (26-14) soared through regional tournament foes Des Moines Area Community College and Iowa Central and advanced to a Nov. 9 district final against Metropolitan Community College in Lee’s Summit, Mo.
A second resounding sweep in three postseason matches delivered Kirkwood to the NJCAA Division II national tournament, which begins Thursday in Charleston, W.Va.
“I know this is basically a dream for every team to do that, so I am really glad that we pulled it out,” Carey said. “I think that we have a really good chance of being national champions.”
Kirkwood Coach Jill Williams will bring a team to the national tournament for the sixth time in 15 years with the Eagles. Last year, Kirkwood placed fourth at nationals. This year, the Eagles boast a whopping 10 freshmen who will make their national tournament debuts after being forced to grow up quick.
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“We knew that they had the capabilities,” Williams said. “I just think there was a lot to learn between the beginning of the season and our regional tournament that freshmen have to kind of figure out for themselves as we go.”
Former Linn-Mar prep Anna Gorsich leads a balanced Kirkwood attack with 439 kills in what has been a successful move from high school middle hitter last year to the outside with the Eagles. Fellow freshman outside hitter Aubrin Dittmer has 332 kills, while sophomore outside hitter Abbie Ericson has posted 308.
Carey has recorded 224 kills from the middle. Sophomore defensive specialist Maranda Wheelock leads the team with 671 digs, while Gorsich has 454.
Sophomore setter Madi Wagaman, a Springville graduate, has distributed 1,093 assists.
“We just had such balance,” Williams said. “That is the key to our success. We can’t just lean on one player. We have to have six players performing on the court and when that happens, we are tough to defend because we have so many different point of emphasis in our offensive attack.”
Kirkwood received the No. 9 seed for the national tournament and will play a first-round match against eighth-seeded Illinois Central (33-10) Thursday at noon. Back on Sept. 20, Kirkwood lost in five sets at Illinois Central.
“They are strong,” Carey said. “But we also are a completely different team from what we were at the beginning of the season. It is kind of hard to watch film on them because we are not the same. We have grown so much since then. We are kind of going to focus more on our side of the court and play our game and play as best as we can.”
For Kirkwood, a win over Illinois Central would set up a likely rematch against No. 1 Parkland (54-2) in the quarterfinal round Thursday night at 6:30. The Eagles are one of just two teams to defeat Parkland this season.
“We are excited to have an opportunity at that, as opposed to a team we know nothing about,” Williams said. “We set it up that to be the best, we want to go play the best.”