photo by Justin Wolford/Colgate Athletics
While the rest of New England grows more dormant with winter taking hold, there’s something blooming and in full flower near Hamilton, NY.
That’s the site of Colgate University, where the volleyball program of the Raiders is currently carving space for recognition as one of the quarterfinalists in the 2019 National Invitational Volleyball Championship. Colgate (24-7) will be looking for more on Thursday, as the Raiders play at TCU (11-17) in hopes of reaching the semifinals.
It’s the first 20-win season for Colgate since 2013, one that will be remembered fondly for its relentless list of accomplishments. The Raiders were 15-1 in the Patriot League; head coach Ryan Baker was named conference coach of the year for the third time in 14 years, and junior outside Alli Lowe earned player of the year honors while also being named honorable mention all-region by the AVCA, an area that includes numerous Power 5 teams.
Colgate is also defining itself by responding to one very unhappy development, which was losing to Army in the Patriot League tournament semifinals. Having beaten the Black Knights twice earlier in the year, the upset was a sudden, rattling reminder of how matches can veer off what looks inevitable on paper, but with 3-1 victories over Boston College and Tulane in the NIVC, it seems Colgate has strong roots earned over time.
“In the moment, it is painful. We talked after the match that we got beat by an Army team that just played better,” said Baker, whose team also played in the NIVC in 2017. “That happens; it’s hard to beat a team three times, and that can be the negative of the conference tournament. You play each other so many times, and we had a bad weekend. For this team, that was maybe motivation for the (NIVC), too. They had a great season and want to keep playing. We played two good teams, very different styles, and our team played so hard. We have all the pieces, and this team wanted to play and wanted this for Colgate, maybe to win the whole thing.
“For this year specifically, our team had an incredible regular season, Patriot League co-champion, so to me they earned and deserved the opportunity, first and foremost. Secondly, an institution of our size, 2,800 students, for Colgate to get on the national scene and play some really great competition including from Power 5 conferences, it’s a huge time for us to grow. We also return 80 percent of our lineup for next season, so the benefit of this is gargantuan. The NIVC has gotten better; by this year, the quality is stronger, the level of play is stronger, the operations are stronger – there’s a lot of buzz and excitement on campus about this.”
Colgate has a classic look on offense, with a dynamic setter (6-foot-1 sophomore Julia Kurowski) and outside hammers in junior Lowe (456 kills) and senior Alex Stein (402 kills). Sophomore middle Hailey Horn-Bostel has done solid work as well, leading the team in blocks and adding 184 kills.
“Julia had to run the show her whole freshman season, so to have that under her belt and now this … you have to teach players how to handle stressful situations and deal with the pressure of one-and-done,” Baker said. “For her development and growth, this is going to pay huge dividends. She’s very steady, consistent and super athletic. And we have two of the best outsides in the Patriot League. We have the backbone to compete with a lot of teams.”
Every season has at least one defining moment, and for the Raiders it came in late September. They lost a doubleheader to North Carolina and VCU, but look deeper – Lowe hurt her ankle in the first match, but Colgate still played well and then took VCU (an NCAA qualifier this year) to five sets. Then, six days later, Lowe was back and the Raiders took down Patriot League power American for the first time since 2012.
“To go through that adversity and play quality opponents without (Lowe) and almost beat them … I think it built everyone’s confidence. Take that straight to playing American, which has won 15 or 16 conference championships, was what we needed, and we went on a huge run. We put eight great weekends together, which is so hard to do with the academic demands of a school like Colgate.”
With three winning records in the past four seasons, a young roster and the sight of Lowe and Kurowski leading the way going ahead, Baker has exactly what he’s wanted – a roster that chips in from every direction.
“Our seniors created a culture of unbelievable positivity and fight. People talk about our bench – they are crazy, they have a blast and provide energy no matter where we go. And I thought we had a solid freshman class, but they overperformed my expectations early on,” he added. “They compete hard every day and make my (playing time) decisions tough. Culture is a buzzword, but ours is really good. It’s inspired other coaches in the department and around the country when they watch our team play.”