Isabella Sade - photo by Mark Kuhlmann
When the bus for the Omaha volleyball team broke down three times on the Mustangs’ long trip for two conference matches, the first ones of the 2018 season, head coach Rose Shires likely had zero idea how the roster would respond.
That’s the way it goes with a team featuring 14 freshmen and/or sophomores in uniform – there’s no history to help gauge how current events might play out.
But the Mustangs held up just fine in that chaos, topping South Dakota State and North Dakota State to launch the Summit League slate in style; for now, they are 5-0 in conference (10-7 overall) and on the cusp of becoming more than a nuisance to the league’s traditional powers. Next up is Friday’s road contest vs. South Dakota (11-7, 5-1) and then Sunday’s home match with Oral Roberts (6-12, 3-3).
Head coach Rose Shires, who won her 500th career match in that North Dakota State five-set showdown, has always liked the vibe of her young squad, and she really enjoyed their collective savvy on that stop-and-start road trip.
“The team had a lot of grit and determination. The bus broke down three times on way to South Dakota, and then we were delayed to North Dakota because of waiting for new bus, and it threw our whole weekend off. For a young team, that could have been catastrophic,” Shires said. “They did a great job of understanding what wasn’t in our control, and to take control of what we could and go at it.
“That transitioned onto the floor – those teams come at you hard, and they’ll get big kills and big stuff blocks on you and get ahead in a match, and you have to fight and come back. Or you get ahead, and you have to finish it off. We have to learn with every opportunity we have. To do what they did on the road gave them a lot of confidence they could handle pressure and the unknown.”
In the middle of that mess was middle blocker Isabella Sade, a sophomore who is second on the team in kills and is a pivot point for the increasingly skilled Omaha program – she was Summit League freshman of the year in 2017, the first Mustang to claim that honor.
“It definitely helped with our confidence. Starting out conference on the road with two road wins was huge,” she said. “There’s no place like home, but having to play in those tough places … North Dakota State’s home crown is amazing, and being able to play under that pressure and play when everyone in the gym is rooting against you, that proves we can compete with high level teams and beat them.”
And when it comes to levels, Shires could tell you a million stories. Now in her 29th season in Omaha, Shires crafted a Division-II powerhouse for decades, winning the 1996 D-II national title and reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times, but then the footing changed completely in 2011 when the volleyball program jumped up to D-I.
The change was sudden, and the resulting impact on the win-loss front was hardly surprising, as the Mustangs have lost 19 or more matches in five of the seven seasons in Division I. But as you’d gather from how they handled the bus fiasco in September, Shires and her team don’t sulk in difficult situations.
“Going from being a perennial power in Division II and having opportunities to win national championships and conference championships every year, and then making the transition … the biggest difficulty for us was not having the advance knowledge we were going to Division I, for recruiting purposes,” Shires said. “It’s difficult to catch up in a quick fashion. To take players on my team, who were stellar Division II players … the first two years, the only teams that would play us outside a few of the ones in the conference we were transitioning to, were regional (powers) like Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Minnesota.
“It was very difficult for our players to know every time they stepped on the floor, they really didn’t have an opportunity to win and compete. We had to be very direct talking to the players about what we were defining success as … to give them building blocks.”
In fact, the Mustangs nearly sprang a colossal upset in the 2015 Summit League tournament, reaching the final and coming up just three points short from claiming a berth in the D-I NCAA event.
Hopes for a 2018 version of a tournament run will rest heavily on freshman right side Sadie Limback (the team’s kills leader) and classmate Sydney Case (the setter, averaging 11.51 per set), along with four essential sophomores in Sade, Claire Leonard (161 kills), Anna Blaschko (166) and Claire Mountjoy (team leader in digs).
How all these fresh faces work out who gets to lead by example, by volume, by presence – that’s a process that hasn’t broken down by the side of the road.
“All of us are different, and we all bring something different to the table. One of us may really loud, one of us may be calm, cool and collected, and we all bring a piece of ourselves to the court,” Sade said. “We are figuring out how to make it all jell together. Our coaches have said we have a chance to do something special, so the standards are high and at practice they make sure we are always pushing to be better.
“We want to win the serve and pass battle, get opponents out of system, because that makes it easier on our defense and block. We also want to focus on limiting other team’s runs – if we get two points they get one; if they get three, we get four.”
“The beauty of this team and this group is they really have embraced and honor each other for their own individual personalities. This is a team that is led by committee,” Shires added. “It just works, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a team that clicked this well, without any forced or pressed communication. This is not a team that likes to be yelled at or likes to yell at each other. We have goofy kids, some who are loud and boisterous and some who are quiet and introverted, but they all work together well. It’s not something we planned and designed – it’s just who they are, working and leading together."