Even Ryan DeLong is a little surprised that the Viterbo volleyball team has been able to get to this point of the season with just one blemish on its record.
To be clear, the V-Hawks certainly have the talent to win 38 out of 39 games and 31 in a row, as they have this year. But DeLong, who is in his 17th season leading the program, also knows how many quality teams Viterbo has faced on its journey to 38-1 and the No. 2 ranking in the country.
Three games against 11th-ranked Bellevue (Neb.). Two against both No. 17 Columbia (Mo.) and No. 18 Grand View (Iowa). One apiece against third-ranked Missouri Baptist, fourth-ranked Park (Mo.) and fifth-ranked College of Saint Mary (Neb.).
In total, the V-Hawks have played 11 teams that were ranked in the Top 25 in the most recent NAIA Coaches’ Poll and have posted a 14-1 record in those games. Their only loss came in four sets to now ninth-ranked Midland (Neb.) back on Aug. 28.
“The schedule we put together was pretty fierce,” DeLong said. “But, you know, we’ve met every challenge.”
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Building such an intense schedule was intentional, DeLong said, and it should serve Viterbo well as it tackles what lies ahead.
The V-Hawks begin pool play at the NAIA Championships on Tuesday in Sioux City, Iowa, and have hopes to make a run at a national title.
That starts with winning Pool B, which also includes No. 19 Concordia (Neb.) and No. 25 Oregon Tech, to advance to single-elimination bracket play.
“It’s been like 2½ weeks of this postseason (with) one game and then the week-and-a-half off,” DeLong said. “So they’re just ready to get going.”
Unlike in the spring — when Viterbo was the bottom team in its pool at the COVID-19-altered national tournament and had to play both of its pool games on the same day — the V-Hawks are the top team in Pool B and have their games split.
They open with Oregon Tech at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and follow with Concordia at 10:30 a.m. Wednesday.
“It will be nice just to focus on one game at a time, get to scout one game at a time and hopefully kind of rest our bodies in between those matches,” DeLong said.
Oregon Tech (24-6) advanced to pool play by beating Westmont (Calif.) in straight sets in the opening round of the NAIA Championships and has wins over Eastern Oregon, which is currently ranked 12th, and Bushnell (Ore.), which spent time this season in the Top 25.
The Owls have three players who average at least 2.5 kills per set, led by junior Kaylin Talonen (2.98) and senior Nicole Reyes (2.92). The offense primarily runs through junior Courtney Isom (6.31 assists per set), while junior Aubrey Kievit leads the defense with 4.29 digs per set.
“They’re athletic, they run a quicker offense,” DeLong said of Oregon Tech. “But they’ve kind of stayed in their conference play all year long, so Concordia we know a little bit more because we’ve got some common opponents.”
Concordia, which swept Ave Maria (Fla.) in the opening round, is 17-11 and finished 9-7 in the Great Plains Athletic Conference — which is home to a number of highly ranked teams, including No. 1 Jamestown (N.D.), College of Saint Mary and Midland.
The Bulldogs have Top 25 wins over College of Saint Mary, Midland, No. 13 Dakota Wesleyan (S.D.) and No. 21 Northwestern (Iowa) — all GPAC squads — as well as No. 15 Montana Tech.
Concordia is led by Camryn Opfer, who averages 3.31 kills per set and 3.2 digs per set, while Gabi Nordaker adds 2.94 kills per set.
“They were rated as high as (No.) 6 one time in the Coaches’ Poll,” DeLong said. “They’ve had some tough losses and whatnot, but they’re a solid team.”
So is Viterbo.
The V-Hawks won the NSAA title and made quick work of Indiana-South Bend in the opening round of the NAIA Championships on Nov. 20. DeLong said his team will need to serve and pass well, the latter of which will directly help Viterbo’s plethora of attackers.
Senior Miah Garant, the NSAA Player of the Year, averages 2.88 kills per set, while all-conference first-teamers Maya Roberts (3.31 kills per set), Kenzie Winker (2.62 kills per set) and Katie Frohmader (2.36 kills per set) are also potent at the net.
And the V-Hawks are motivated to keep their 31-game winning streak rolling.
“We’ve got super seniors and other seniors that have been around for a long time,” DeLong said. “They’ve been in the Final Four, they’ve come up a little short. Obviously, they’ve had a lot of success.
“This is our final shot with this group to kind of see what we can do, and I think they’re pretty confident, they’re pretty excited just to get started.”
Eric Lee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @ByEricLee