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Relays Edition

From pretender to contender

Photo: Connor McCourtney

Winning one game is a great accomplishment. Winning three games in a row is a streak; but winning 14 games in a row is historic, and the Drake volleyball team made it happen.

The Bulldogs started the season 14-0, including a big win at home over in-state rival Iowa before suffering a loss in Missouri Valley Conference play. They finished the season  23-11, tying for fifth in the MVC with a conference record of 8-10 and making an appearance at the State Farm MVC Tournament for a second-straight season.

The 14-0 start for the Bulldogs will go down as one of the most memorable streaks in Drake volleyball history. At the peak of the streak, the Bulldogs held the best record in the NCAA, set the mark for best start in school history and had the most consecutive victories in school history.

The 2011 senior class entered Drake following an 8-22 season in 2006. They played a key role in turning the program around during their careers. In each of their four seasons, Drake  finished each year with a higher winning percentage than the previous season.

“We made great strides throughout the year, and we started to establish where Drake volleyball should be every year,” senior Alana Wittenburg said. “So for future generations, (we established) how we should perform consistently on a season-by-season basis and how to work hard all the time.”

The 14-0 start was capped by a home victory against the Hawkeyes in a highly anticipated match. The Knapp Center crowd  of 1,215 provided an electric feel to the game and helped urge the team to victory.

“So many people were there,” junior Caitlin Johnson said. “It was great hearing the fans, every play cheering for us. I hope to keep having fans come to the gym next season.”

The seniors said the team’s 3-1 victory on the road against Missouri State was also memorable. It was the last opportunity the graduating class had to play the Bears after dropping the previous seven matches against them.

The season ended in disappointing fashion as the team dropped the opening round game in the MVC tournament against the Creighton Bluejays.

“The first year, we just wanted to get there,” senior Nicole Brown said. “This year when we went, we wanted to make it and play well and try to excel in the tournament. So, we just didn’t have a goal of making it to the tournament anymore. We wanted to excel when we got there. It was exciting.”

Senior Angela Bys finished her career at the top of the school record books with 1,626 kills on 4,688 attempts during the course of her four-year career.

Wittenburg had a record-breaking senior campaign in multiple ways. She holds the Drake career digs record with 2,423. She also set a single-season school record with 764 digs, which placed her second all-time in NCAA history since volleyball moved to the 25-point scoring system and introduced the libero position. She also holds the Drake single game record with 39 digs. Wittenburg was named to the All-MVC first team for her remarkable 2010 season.

“As far as going forward, (the records) are a good marker for people who are coming up,”  Wittenburg said. “It’s something for them to push for to beat. Not like it’s supposed to be an individual thing, but it gives them a place to aim to be.”

The team will lose Bys, Wittenburg, Brown, Susan Clausen, Alisa DeBerg Roth and Emily Sibigtroth. DeBerg Roth played a vital role in the Drake frontcourt, recording 86 blocks and 269 kills. Clausen was second on the team in assists with 547 and added 208 digs on the season.

Bys, Wittenburg and sophomore Emily Heffernen received All-MVC Scholar-Athlete awards to keep the academic tradition at Drake  alive. Bys and Heffernen were both placed on the ESPN Academic All-District VII team.

The most impressive part of the 2010 season may have not been the on-court performance, but instead, the molding together of a very unique group of girls ranging from dancers to Sourpatch Kids lovers.

“Overall, we had the most interesting group of girls that I have seen in my whole lifetime put together,” Wittenberg said.

The six seniors said that although the team’s range of personalities could be described as weird, it was a good weird.

“We all had the same passion and we were all driven toward that same goal, and those personalities didn’t really matter,” Clausen said.

The future remains bright for the Bulldogs as the team returns five starters from the 2010 team, and the players are prepared to replace the empty shoes left by the graduating class.

Heffernen was awarded the team’s Most Valuable Offensive Player award from former head coach Phil McDaniel following the season. Heffernen was second on the team with 274 kills and had a team-best .303 kill percentage.

Johnson will be back for her senior campaign and looks to control the offense from the setter position. Johnson finished the 2010 season with 847 assists and registered 320 digs. She also was awarded the team’s Hustle and Attitude Award at a postseason awards ceremony.

Sophomore Whitney Westrum was named to the MVC All-Tournament team for her nine kills, 15 digs, two block assists and one serving ace performance in Drake’s 3-1 tournament loss to Creighton. Junior co-captain Mikayla Sims will also return to provide a strong front line.

“Our core is coming back, so we have a chance to shine this year and hope to have a more successful season,” Johnson said. “The ultimate goal is to make the NCAA (tournament).”

McDaniel, who played a major role in bringing Drake volleyball to the height it has reached this season, took a job to become head coach at  South Dakota State after three years at Drake.

Tony Sunga, a 1988 Drake graduate, filled the position left vacant by McDaniel. Sunga was an assistant coach at Drake from 2005-07 and played a key role in recruiting this season’s graduating class. The new coaching staff will look to build on the unforgettable success of the 2010 season and make Drake volleyball into an MVC powerhouse.

“I think they have the potential to keep going at this pace,” Clausen said. “I would be very surprised and disappointed if it changed. The last three years has set a precedent of what Drake volleyball is.”

DRAKE TOP SENIOR CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Susan Clausen

Position: Setter

Career highlights: Finished second on the team in 2010 with 547 assists; had 208 digs and 10 serving aces; played in 129 of 132 games played in 2010.

Alisa Deberg Roth

Position: Outside hitter

Career highlights: Finished career with 276 block assists (10th in Drake history); finished third on the team with 269 kills in 2010; had 86 total blocks in 2010.

Angela Bys

Position: Outside hitter

Career highlights: Drake career leader for kills with 1,626; ranks 12th in MVC history for kills and fifth for kills attempted; had team-high 454 kills in 2010.

Alana Wittenburg

Position: Libero

Career highlights: All-MVC first team, 2010; holds career, season and single-game digs record; ended with MVC record 764 digs, one of 15 players in NCAA history to amass 2,400 digs or more in career.

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