Precedent-setting Bowling Green worked hard, made the most of the situation to win MAC

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Bowling Green volleyball-NCAA volleyball Bowling Green 4/9/2021-BGSU volleyball
Bowling Green celebrates winning the MAC championship/Isaiah Vazquez photo

Every time junior outside hitter Katelyn Meyer jumps, Bowling Green coach Danijela Tomic gets a bit nervous. Meyer jumps often — and it isn’t always to send a ball rocketing to the floor.

Meyer is just a bit excitable, kind of like the North Pole is a bit chilly. With every kill, ace, block and point by the Falcons, Meyer bounds around the court in a display of unbridled joy.

So exuberant are the celebrations that Tomic pleaded with her to rein in her jumping and save some energy for game play. Sometimes teammates need to hold her down when she can’t contain herself.

“It’s kind of funny watching her try to keep from jumping and holding it in,” Tomic said.

Tomic’s concern for the wear and tear on Meyer’s legs was legitimate because the Falcons have had plenty to celebrate.

Bowling Green went 22-1 in the regular season — surpassing its 2019 win total despite playing fewer matches — and captured the Mid-American Conference championship to earn a berth in the NCAA Tournament. The effort got BGSU eight votes in the April 5 AVCA Top 25.

Bowling Green coach Danijela Tomic/BGSU photo

The Falcons will face Weber State (18-1) on Wednesday in the first round, with the winner getting top-seeded Wisconsin. This is Bowling Green’s first trip to the tournament since 2012, Tomic’s first season with the program.

“It will just hit us randomly. Like, ‘Holy crap. We just did that,’ ” said Meyer about the residual euphoria of winning the MAC’s automatic bid. “When you think about it now, we earned it. We worked so hard.”

Perhaps Meyer and her teammates appreciate their feat even more because the season was fraught with uncertainty. In August, the MAC postponed all fall sports because of concerns over COVID-19. Conference officials announced they intended to play fall sports in the spring, but, as with most other facets of life during a pandemic, nothing was guaranteed.

Tomic turned the disappointment into a teaching moment.

“We didn’t focus on: Why did the season get canceled? Why did it get postponed?” she said. “It was a great lesson in controlling things we can control.”

What Tomic and her staff could control was what happened within the team. They diligently observed health and safety protocols so they could continue to work during the down time.

And work they did. Perhaps like no other team Tomic had in her tenure with the Falcons.

The class of six freshmen, which Tomic called “the best freshman class I have recruited,” raised the level of competition in practice. Even though only a couple of them would go on to be regular parts of the rotation once the season started, the freshmen’s contributions proved to be invaluable.

“That is so true,” Meyer said. “They made our gym so competitive. We were making each other better every single day. They were busting their butts in practice. They came in with so much talent and worked so hard.”

But even as the team was improving on the court, there were other challenges off it.

Petra Indrova blocks against Western Michigan/Isaiah Vazquez photo

There are four international players on the Falcons’ roster: Petra Indrova (Czech Republic), Katrin Trebichavska (Slovakia), Hanna Laube (Canada) and Nikolija Katanic (Serbia). When Christmas break rolled around, they were unable to return to their home countries as they normally would. With concerns over the pandemic lingering, the players ran the risk of not being able to get back into the States if they left.

So the other players tried to make them feel like extended family. The internationals were brought meals so they could have a special Christmas feast, and Tomic, Meyer said, even arranged days when the international players could treat the Americans to some of their native foods.

“That would have been so hard for me, so I was trying to put myself in their shoes,” Meyer said. “That (staying in the U.S.) was such a big sacrifice, and we all knew it. So we just tried to be their second family.”

Added Tomic: “We have a great team culture. There is a lot of love going on on our team. We choose to build relationships and serve others.”

Once the spring volleyball season became a reality, the Falcons were ready to unleash their chemistry and competitive fire on the rest of the MAC. They won 18 straight matches — a program record — then, after a close call against Miami (Ohio) in the MAC semifinals, they defeated Western Michigan, 3-1, to earn their trip to the NCAA Tournament.

BGSU’s Katelyn Meyer

Meyer (327 kills, 3.80 per set) led the way, earning first-team All-MAC honors for the third consecutive season. Indrova also was first-team All-MAC. Just a sophomore, Indrova emerged as a six-rotation player who led the team and ranked fourth in the conference in points per set (4.19) and recorded 10 kill/dig double-doubles in 21 matches played.

“Katelynn has grown so much since her freshman year,” Tomic said. “Her mind set has developed so much. I don’t know if you can find another person who gets so excited when her teammates do something well.

“(Indrova) was hurt last year in the beginning of the season. We thought last year if she was healthy she could have been freshman of the year. You don’t see many opposites playing six rotations. She has a high volleyball IQ.”

Laube, the setter, was second-team all-conference. She played only one match at setter in her freshman and sophomore seasons, but after biding her time, she emerged as one of the best in the MAC, averaging 11.29 assists per set.

The core players produced, but all those high-intensity practices through the fall and winter gave the Falcons a quality just as important as star power: depth. The complementary players were vital to BGSU’s success.

Sophomore middle hitter Madelynn Luebcke was pressed into service early in the season against Ball State. In two matches against the Cardinals, she had 13 blocks. She also had seven blocks in the MAC title match.

Trebichavska had 17 kills in an early-season match against Northern Illinois.

And sophomore defensive specialist Yelianiz Torres shifted to libero in the middle of a match against Akron and recorded 29 digs. In the second match against the Zips, Torres started at libero and recorded 30 digs. The performance earned her recognition as MAC East Defensive Player of the Week for the week of March 15.

“I know that takes the pressure off of us,” Meyer said. “We know if one person was struggling, we have a whole team to back them up.”

The Falcons are counting on the depth and skills they have built over the past eight months to make them formidable foe in the NCAA Tournament. Since her team captured the MAC crown, Tomic has made it clear they aren’t going to Omaha just to show up.

Tomic has likened this season to a storybook, and she is not quite ready for the end.

“Going to Omaha was one of our big goals from the beginning,” she said. “We know we have a really good team, and we will compete to win.

“We’ve been writing an amazing story … Let’s continue writing this chapter. Let’s see how long it’s going to be.”

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Weber State beat Northern Colorado in the Big Sky Conference tourney final to clinch the automatic bid. It’s Weber State’s first NCAA trip since 1988. Weber State is located in Ogden, Utah, and is one of four schools from the state in the tourney, along with Utah, BYU, and Utah Valley.

The Wildcats, who went 15-1 in the MWC regular-season, losing only at Northern Arizona in four in early March, are led by senior outside Rylin Adams, who has 316 kills (4.45/set) and averages 3.0 digs and has 32 blocks. Sophomore outside Dani Nay has 263 kills (3.7/set), a whopping 36 aces (tied for 12th in the nation), 238 digs, and 20 blocks.

Senior middle Sam Scheiss has 83 blocks, 11 solo, and freshman Makayla Sorensen leads with 282 digs (3.97/set) to go with 55 assists and 16 aces. Senior setter Ashlyn Power averages 10.73 assists and has 16 aces and has 197 digs and 23 blocks.

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Chuck Curti is a sports copy editor and writer for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
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