Photo by Mallory Hiser, BGSU Athletics
By Kyle Koso
For the Bowling Green volleyball program, last season brought with it a lot of attention and excitement, indicating the team has made tons of progress.
Head coach Danijela Tomic isn’t waiting to see if the Falcons can handle more weight.
While last year’s stellar 22-2 record is a source of pride with the Falcons, Tomic wanted to make sure it didn’t distract from the work of getting better, so she scheduled three rigorous preseason tournaments, at Butler, Notre Dame and Pittsburgh. The last one saw Bowling Green fall short to the No. 4 Panthers, No. 12 BYU and a very solid High Point squad, leaving fans to wonder if the psychological impact of those defeats might be an issue heading into conference play.
Not to worry. The Falcons are 4-0 in the MAC Eastern Division (winning 12 of 13 sets), with matches Friday against Northern Illinois and a big Saturday showdown with Western Michigan, 5-0 in the MAC Western Division.
“All three tournaments were strong, and the reason for it was in 2020, we didn’t play any nonconference, and we missed that piece. You learn when you play out of conference,” Tomic said. “We had a historic season, but with that, I thought we needed a real challenge. We needed to sharpen to get to our goal of being in the Top 25. That’s very ambitious for any school, especially a mid-major, and the piece we needed to add was a challenging schedule.
“We know how the NCAA selects at-large teams, the importance of the RPI, and all of this led me to think about how to take the next step. We can’t be satisfied with the season we had, and I think it’s working out. We got tested, which was the plan, because we got a look at where we are and where we want to go.”
Under Tomic’s guidance, Bowling Green made the NCAA Tournament last year and earned berths in the three NIVC tournaments (2017-19) that have run since its rebooting. This year’s roster is in that ideal spot where there’s a healthy amount of experience, with plenty of eligibility left to explore as the Falcons keep grinding on their goals of progress.
Petra Indrova leads the way with 197 kills; three others have topped 100 in Katelyn Meyer (168), Kat Mandly (115) and Katie Kidwell (103). Hannah Laube is the steadiest of hands at setter (498 assists, 10.38 per set) who had the third-highest assist total in the nation last year.
“We have strong pin hitters – Katelyn Meyer along with Petra Indrova, who is an unusual opposite in today’s volleyball because she serve-receives, plays in the back row and is a good defender,” Tomic said. “Kat Mandly is a redshirt freshman who has developed tremendously and has a bright future. We are still working on having more of a middle hitter offense which will make us more balanced. We were a strong serving team last season, but we have gotten even better. With improved serving, our block and serve-receive improved as well. I am also pleased with how our defensive unit is improving and helping us win.”
One of the other unique traits of the Falcons lineup is the international flavor of the roster, with players hailing from the Czech Republic, Puerto Rico, Slovakia, Canada, Sweden and Serbia. On the surface, it seems like a big ask to get an Eastern European, for example, to mesh with life as it’s lived near Lake Erie, but Tomic can speak to it very clearly as she left her homeland (Bosnia and Herzegovina) in the mid-1990s to play for and attend the University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
“I still remember when I came to Little Rock in 1995, and how everything was different. And when we have international players come here, I’m reliving those experiences,” Tomic said. “I can help them; they know I was in their shoes, and I understand the homesickness and how to make adjustments. They’re not going to like the food, but they’ll get used to it … we talk about that right away in the recruiting. They can say, ‘my coach was in my shoes.’ And I make sure to connect with the parents, who know they can contact me whenever, especially being so far away.
“These players bring so much richness to our American players, and it’s a cool experience to have all these different players, languages, cultures, and build a team that is unified and works to a common goal … what you can do when you put differences aside.”
If there’s one other force quietly in play as Tomic and the Falcons pursue their lofty goals, it’s tied to a time when the program was experiencing real struggle. In 2014, Bowling Green managed just a 7-21 record, with a 7-22 mark posted the following season. For a volleyball lifer who had shined as a player, worked a couple seasons with the high-flyers at LSU, and got off to a great coaching start at Florida International (158-61 in seven years), that ragged stretch of 2014-15 was rattling.
Tomic began to see that while confidence was important, preparing for those almost inevitable moments of getting humbled was no less relevant to building a proper foundation at Bowling Green.
“If I didn’t go through those years, rough years, where I questioned if I was in the right profession, it made me a better coach. I had to reexamine everything,” she said. “It forced me to look in the mirror, how to be a better leader and better coach. We did establish our core values. As a young coach, you have this ego, that winning comes easily, it did as an athlete, I worked at LSU, had other success, and it was easy.
“Coaches told me, the longer you stay in it, eventually you’ll hit that stretch where difficult years happen for you as a person and coach. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I appreciate the good years more, the amazing student-athletes I’m blessed to coach. I don’t want to go through that again, but if I stay in it, there’s no guarantee, right?”