Volleyball’s Amazing Season Keeps Going
By Justin Parker
Thursday evening the Wildcats (22-10) defeated the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in the NIVC quarterfinals in Belk Arena. They did so in decisive fashion – in three straight games.
It was the first postseason match the Wildcats have ever hosted and the latest checkmark on a list of accomplishments for a team that has set the bar higher and higher as the calendar has flipped from August into December.
Along the dot-to-dot-to-dot journey of the 2022 season, the Davidson volleyball team has had its share of highlights.
There was the early-season 3-1 win over ACC foe Virginia Tech, when pieces began falling into place. There was a 7-0 start to Atlantic 10 Conference play, including back-to-back wins at Dayton, a place no Wildcat team had ever won. There was a Nov. 6 win against George Mason, which secured the first 20-win season in two decades. And there was a fourth bid to the A-10 Tournament.
Most recently, there’s been the first two postseason wins in program history — 3-2 victories against North Dakota State and Wake Forest in the National Invitational Volleyball Championship last weekend.
“Not to steal from Ted Lasso, but we just really believed, and I think that’s been a constant theme throughout the year, just belief in ourselves and belief that we are going to win the next point,” says coach Chris Willis. “It’s, ‘Do everything you can in the moment to win the point and then repeat that process over and over again.'”
Admittedly, the Wildcats — who were in the hunt for the A-10 regular-season title entering the final weekend — were disappointed with their A-10 semifinal loss to Dayton on Nov. 19, when it seemed like a breakthrough season was complete. As the topic of entering the NIVC was discussed internally, there was a lot to consider, especially given the timing of the academic calendar. Was this something the Wildcats wanted to do?
The moment of clarity came from junior middle blocker/right side Sola Omonije, who chimed in during a team meeting. Her message?
“If not now, when?” she asked. “We all want to go to the postseason. Why are we here? If we’re not here to win, then what are we doing?”
That was it. The Wildcats would play in the 32-team event.
“It really struck a chord with the entire team, and it means so much more when it comes from a player and not a coach,” says Willis. “I think that re-energized a lot of players and refocused them after the disappointment of not winning the conference tournament. It got them excited to play again.”
The Wildcats got some extra rest during the Thanksgiving break, then went back to work.
Fun, resilient, successful
Watch the Wildcats for even a short amount of time, and it’s clear there are many layers to a team that took Davidson back to the postseason for the first time since back-to-back NCAA Tournament berths in 1999 and 2000.
“Across the board, we just have an unselfish group of women who want success for the team and aren’t too worried about themselves,” says Willis. “They’d rather see success for the team.”
There’s Bella Brady, now the two-time A-10 Libero of the Year, who leads the league with 5.03 digs per set and provides her unique brand of on-court leadership with a smile. Willis calls her the team’s thermostat.
“She really dictates the temperature in the room, on the court, in the team room, in our culture,” he says. “You even see it after mistakes. She’ll smile, and it’s a smile of determination that, ‘I’m going to win this next point.’ It’s pretty cool to see that become contagious across a team, and when one of your best players is also one of your hardest workers, that’s when magic can really happen.”
There are impact newcomers like A-10 Rookie of the Year Emma Slusser, All-Rookie picks Jackie Bardin and Kayla Davis and momentum-changer Jan Marie Duhaylungsod. Veterans like Omonije, A-10 First Teamer Anela Davis, Isabel Decker, Xuan Nguyen and Sophia Hritz have continued to progress and produce, and there’s energetic setter Jessie Doyal who Willis says, “fills everyone else’s battery” and makes sure everyone’s having fun.
The Wildcats have talent, depth and chemistry.
“We diversified our offense quite a bit this fall,” says Willis. “We’re able to score across the net at any time, which is a luxury we haven’t had in the past. And our defense has continued to get better, blocking and floor defense, all that.”
It’s a resilient group, too, which showed it could win at perennial league power Dayton, earned the most A-10 wins in program history (14) and proved it could compete for a league title. It’s a team that bounced back from an A-10 tournament loss, rallied from a 25-12 third-set loss to North Dakota State to win the next two and beat a Demon Deacons team that swept it in September.
Now, another moment awaits another home match – this time against Drake. The game is slated for Sunday at 1 p.m. in Belk Arena. As Willis looks at the players in the team huddle, he sees a team that reminds him of a lot of coaching clichés about the ideal kind of team.
“We’re personifying 90 percent of them right now, which is pretty awesome,” he says.
Note – the original version of this story was published prior to Thursday night’s game against UTRGV, and was updated to reflect the win.