The volleyball program at Oklahoma Christian University, led by head coach Barry Wheeler, made it all the way to the conference tournament in their first season of competition since 1983.
Throughout the season, the talent and potential of the young team has become clear.
“According to the NCAA Division II, we’re number three in the nation for blocking, which is pretty cool,” Wheeler said. “[Also], we have one kid who is number three in the nation in serving aces, and that’s [Karlee] Alonzo. We have another kid, Spencer Plato who is tied number 10 nationally in serving.”
Such swift success began with a firm foundation.
“We started in the fall of 2019. We had 11 players at that point,” Wheeler said. “We recruited kids who were high character kids… they’re great athletes, they’re great students, they’re great leaders.”
After acquiring quality character, they still had to put the pieces together.
“It was challenging at first because we have so many players and we all have different personalities,” “But we learned a lot about each other… [and] have definitely grown as a team and as people toward each other.”
They continued to grow and improve throughout the season which reached a turning point on March 10 when they played against Cameron University.
“We were at Cameron and we knew we had to win both games to clinch [the tournament],” Plato said. “After the first night [and win] we started to gain a little confidence, but it was also nerve wracking because we knew there was a lot of pressure on the game the next night. It was a great feeling winning that next game.”
Typically, the bar of expectations for a first-year team is set relatively low.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to even make the tournament at all, and it would have been really easy for us to just coast through the season and not push,” Kyla Chavez said. “[But] one thing we have stuck to towards the end of the season is ‘why not us?’”
If they were to go all the way, they would need to overcome challenges. One was nerves.
“I think just because we are a really young team, we have a lot of inexperience in pressure situations,” Chavez said.
Serving, on both sides of the net, is another area that needs work.
“We need to improve on our serve receiving, that has not been our forte all year long. And we have to get better at serving a little tougher,” Wheeler said. “We got a couple of really good servers, just as a whole team we have to get a little bit better at serving.”
COVID-19, however, has been their biggest adversary.
They have been forced to wear masks as they play during matches, impeding their communication. To adapt, they have implemented hand signals thanks to Lily Saenz’s knowledge of sign language.
The pandemic has also restructured their season. Instead of playing every team in the conference, they instead just played the three other teams in their ‘pod.’ This reduced travel time, risk of exposure, and how many teams they had to strategize against.
Practice serves as the best place to overcome these challenges and make improvements but, that is not all the program hopes practices will accomplish.
“It’s maximum effort every day… [we]work hard every day, try to get better and be great teammates and be great people,” Wheeler said. “When [they]get out of Oklahoma Christian, we want them to have a degree and be prepared to be leaders in whatever field they’re going into.”