Photo by Dylan Heuer
Story by Kyle Koso
Some preseason predictions in college sports function like embers of irritation, where the opinion of others about your program get aired and you just have to sit there and take it.
For the Drake volleyball team, head coach Darrin McBroom saw the 2022 Missouri Valley Conference poll place his Bulldogs into the No. 9 slot out of 12, and there wasn’t much to do but shrug, realize the previous year’s less-than-thrilling record colored the conversation, and dial into the work to come.
Maybe indifference greeting Drake at the start, but the Bulldogs have been making a difference ever since. The team is one of the last two standing in the NIVC postseason tournament, sporting a sparking 30-7 record and hosting Boston College (23-13) on Wednesday in the championship match after going 16-2 in the MVC and finishing second in both the regular season and league tournament.
“It’s not a surprise we were picked that low – we felt we underperformed the previous year,” said McBroom, in his 10th year at Drake. “We were picked second, finished ninth (with an 11-15 record), but we knew we were returning so many key players this season. We went into it not saying this was the year to win it all; we wanted to be contender for a regular season or conference tournament championship. The top three was the target range.”
Arguably, the key to hitting the target has been the careful aim of freshman setter Addison Beagle, who has launched her Drake career with superlative results. Her 1,562 assists are the most in D-I volleyball by a hefty margin, and she was the no-doubt freshman of the year in the MVC. A product of the high-powered Dynasty club program, Beagle was the Missouri Gatorade player of the year in 2021 and also leads the team in service aces (41) and is second in digs (316).
“She’s exceptional, our first offer for setter in that class,” McBroom said. “The key factor, it coincided with a foreign tour year (to Brazil). Over the summer, our freshmen got to go along, and into the fall all of the freshmen had already spent two weeks training together and traveling internationally and competing. The foundation and groundwork had already been laid.
“Our strength is the connection with the setter and the hitters; when we are playing well and confident, we have the weapons to score from a variety of locations. Things seem to fall into place for us, and I see that defensively, too, the coverage … and that old saying, the harder we work the luckier we seem to be.”
Drake’s roster has certainly flexed its depth in 2022, with senior Haley Bush earning her second MVC player of the year award and now atop the 500-kill mark (504), the best in program history. Grad students Mariana Rodrigues (488 kills) and Taylor Oberpriller (337) are also reliable and relentless hitters – the three of them have all shined in the NIVC, and extra offense can pop up from sophomore Ashlynn Kuhn (209). Junior libero Jada Willis has played in all 136 sets for the Bulldogs and has 691 digs, which is fifth in all of Division-I.
With all the physical tools in place, Drake’s larger concern heading into the NIVC was all mental. A disappointing five-set loss to Northern Iowa in the MVC tournament title match took a little time to process, as did the time that elapsed before Round 1 of the NIVC began.
“As the season wound down, we knew we had a good shot at winning our tournament and getting the NCAA berth; we also knew if we didn’t secure that, we’d be an (automatic qualifier) for the NIVC,” McBroom said. “So either way, we knew we’d have a postseason opportunity. In the locker room after the UNI match, we knew UNI would be challenging, but now we need to find a way to refocus and win the NIVC.
“Everyone was kind of board early; what made it hard was Thanksgiving break, and we didn’t play for a while … a long week, post-holiday, last ones to play (in the opening round of NIVC), and there was a bit of, ‘Why are we doing this?’ It’s so new to us, playing this deep into December. Teams want to do it, but they may not know what it actually feels like. After that first round, we won those two matches, and everybody caught the fire and love for it, and was on board going forward.”
LAST WORD – McBroom on the utility of the NIVC: “I’m very grateful for the NIVC. I know there are some teams that are historically NCAA qualifiers, so they won’t consider anything else, and that’s their decision to make … for a team like Drake or any up-and-coming and building program, the NIVC tournament offers such an opportunity to get a feel for what it takes and looks like to play in a postseason tournament. To extend that season … it’s been a learning experience for me and my staff and the team, and we’ve gained immeasurably from it. We said, if we want to be a team that goes to the NCAA’s, we can’t turn our nose up. Now we’ve got a chance to make a statement that you can win in the postseason. I hope more teams in volleyball will come to embrace it.”