One of the toughest tasks as an athlete or a coach is talking yourself into believing that what you see, really isn’t how it looks.
For the Bradley volleyball program, a drumroll of 20-loss seasons couldn’t help but give off the impression that the sport was rootless, unable to thrive or grow because of the unpleasant environment. A handful of players who refused to stay in the darkness, and a very well-timed coaching change, has given the Braves a fresh, full reset, and the latest piece of evidence is a berth in the 2018 National Invitational Volleyball Championship.
The turnaround under third-year coach Carol Price-Torok is downright shocking – Bradley was last in the Missouri Valley Conference last year, as Price-Torok continued the hard work of changing attitudes and attracting new talent. This year, the Braves went 23-8 overall and had their highest seed in the MVC tournament since 2001, and while a loss to Drake ended that vibe, the NIVC bid gave Bradley volleyball its first-ever postseason opportunity.
The Braves take on Bowling Green (19-11) on Thursday, with the winner facing either host Iowa State or Drake on Friday.
“I’m really excited for the seniors; this is about the footprint they are leaving on the program and the legacy for the teams to come. We talked in the preseason that this season could be special; we felt we could make a run, and we ran into a team (Drake) that was equal to us,” said Price-Torok, this year’s MVC coach of the year. “We knew it would be a battle … you can’t ask for anything more if it’s 17-15, fifth set. It’s exciting our body of work before the conference tournament got us this opportunity to make the postseason for the first time in Bradley volleyball history. When you’re the first to do it, when you get to put a banner up in the gym, that’s the benchmark for the program and creating an expectation to be in the postseason.”
One benefit that can’t measured quite yet is how Price-Torok and her assistants will be viewed by future recruits, now that Bradley has proven it can sustain month-after-month excellence on the court. Back during a four-year stretch where the team was 25-94 overall, it was a tough case to make, although the first step forward came in 2015 with the start of Erica Haslag’s career. In 2017, she was the first from Bradley to earn the MVC player of the year award since 2005.
“If you asked any of the players or the staff, it was really frustrating. There are a lot of competitive people here who are used to being successful, whether it’s at volleyball or the classroom or just in life, and trying to convert that over to our court, there were a lot of growing pains,” Price-Torok said. “We had to go back to marketing the program, letting people know who we are and what we’re about. Coming in, we didn’t feel like there was a great sense around Illinois or our recruiting footprint of who Bradley was and what we wanted to do. It was hard to be patient, to get the pieces around Erica and the people who were here when we got here.”
Haslag has 501 kills on the year and joins fellow senior Yavianliz Rosado (libero) and junior setter Hannah Angeli as the key forces of stability on the roster. The mental drag of all the losing her first year had her thinking about transferring, but the mood lifted just in time.
“It was a wake-up call for me and the other freshmen as well; having to push through that made me a completely different player and person off the court. When we heard we had a new coach, we knew she’d do big things for the programs, and that’s why we stuck through it,” said Haslag, who came to Bradley after winning a high school championship in Missouri, joining club teammate Allison Turner with the expectation then could revitalize the program. “When we were freshmen, we didn’t think the culture was volleyball-driven; it was a bottom sport, there was no push, and that’s how it was always going to be. The changes made us hopeful.
“I’m really happy that I stayed. I knew I wasn’t coming into a great program, but I thought me and my best friend … we said this will be great, we have each other and we’ll push this team to a new level. We had a lot of confidence, but two people won’t turn around a program, and it’s a lot harder than you think.”
The first signs of promise for 2018 came when the team traveled to Puerto Rico in the summer, as two freshmen made the trip and accelerated their fit into the roster. By the time the MVC schedule started, the momentum was chugging forward, and the Braves won their first four league matches – even better, after dropping a couple, they turned around and won five of the next six, stemming any fears of a relapse to the past.
Although six seniors are leaving, the roster does have Angeli back next year, as well as Hannah Thompson, a thumper with 361 kills who was named the MVC’s freshman of the year.
“The biggest thing for us is getting the other team out of system. When we are serving well, when we are flowing there, we feel we’ll be successful,” Price-Torok added. “When we get our middles involved, the faster we do that the more points we’ll score by the pins. We are reliant on our pins, but if the middles score, we can create some holes and opportunities for the pins.”
Sure, it’s a tough assignment heading to Iowa State – the Cyclones have dropped one set in their past four matches, but for the Braves to even get a look at Round 2, they have to handle Bowling Green and two-time MAC player of the year, libero Kallie Seimet.
But 2018 will always symbolize success for Haslag and the Braves, who changed everything with one magical season.
“It’s crazy, the stuff we’ve come back from, being 10th in the conference last year … to the things we did this season is remarkable. It shows if you keep working hard, things will go your way,” Haslag said. “That’s how we seniors feel; we deserve this because we’ve been working so hard, and things have finally gone our way. Maybe we’ll end the season with a win – you never know. We can leave a footprint, something better than what was here before. It’s an expectation for the future, and we’ll way down the road look back and know we started it."