The women’s volleyball season in the Mountain West Conference hasn’t held many surprises recently. For 10 of the past 11 seasons, the championship trophy has resided in Fort Collins, home of Colorado State.
UNLV mostly has been spectating as the Rams have dominated — with Boise State interrupting Colorado State’s string of titles in 2016.
But for the past two-plus years, the Rebels have been preparing to stake their claim to a Mountain West title, starting with the hiring of Dawn Sullivan as coach in 2018.
As a player, Sullivan competed in the Big 12 with Kansas State and made the NCAA Tournament in each of her four seasons. Before coming to UNLV, she spent 13 seasons coaching under Christy Johnson-Lynch at Iowa State, helping the Cyclones to 12 consecutive NCAA Tournament berths.
Now, Sullivan will wear UNLV colors at the NCAA Tournament.
The Rebels won all 12 of their matches this spring — they played a conference-only schedule — and earned their first Mountain West title since 2007. UNLV will open NCAA play against Missouri Valley Conference champion Illinois State (16-5) on April 14 in Omaha, Nebraska.
The only downside to this monumental event was the Rebels didn’t get a proper on-court celebration. On March 25, UNLV defeated Fresno State in straight sets, then went back to their hotel. Later, the players found out Boise State had lost to — strangely enough — Colorado State, clinching the conference title for the Rebels.
“We didn’t even know it was going to happen,” said senior outside hitter Mariena Hayden. “I saw it on Twitter and was like, ‘What?’ We instantly started crying and jumping around. It didn’t feel quite real at first.
“We’ve been talking about this moment since we got third place last year. Our seniors … we knew this year we had to do it. We had the experience and the talent to get it done.”
Surprise? Maybe to everyone outside of Cox Pavilion.
“I had a game plan,” Sullivan said. “We started at the bottom. The first year, we jumped to the middle of the pack. The next year, I wanted to get to third, which we did. This year, we wanted to win it, and it worked.
“This team is very relentless, very intentional every time they walk into the gym.”
Not a bad trajectory for someone in her first head-coaching role.
Sullivan was an accomplished outside hitter during her playing days, so it stands to reason the Rebels would have a potent attack. UNLV led the conference and ranked sixth in the country in hitting percentage (.304), led the MWC in assists (12.79 per set) and led the conference and ranked 12th in the nation in kills per set (14.41).
Individually, three of Sullivan’s players ranked in the top 10 in the conference in hitting percentage: senior Macy Smith (first, .416), junior Kate Brennan (tied for third, .371) and Hayden (ninth, .339). Sophomore Shelby Capllonch also has been a dangerous hitter, ranking second on the team with 101 kills.
“Dawn was an outside hitter in college, so every day she teaches us something new,” Hayden said. “She explains how we need to have a ‘toolbox’ because not every set is going to be perfect.”
But the setting tandem of freshman Arien Fafard and junior Lauryn Burt haven’t been off target much. Fafard and Burt produced almost identical statistics: Fafard had 246 assists, Burt 227. Both played every set of every match.
“They know who to set and when to set them,” Sullivan said.
The Rebels’ other potent offensive weapon is their serve. They led the conference and tied for sixth nationally with 2.03 aces per set. Forty of their 79 total aces were courtesy of Hayden, who led the country with nearly an ace per set (0.95).
Serving is just another aspect of Hayden’s complete game. She plays all six rotations, and in addition to her hitting and serving prowess, she also averages 3.12 digs per set. She has 53 kill/dig double-doubles in her career.
Sullivan said she wouldn’t necessarily call Hayden one of the best-kept secrets in the country but allowed she might be “under the radar.”
“Mariena has been a big piece of our success,” Sullivan said. “She can play the whole game … and her serve is ridiculous. In the past year, she has really grown and matured as a player.
“We haven’t played any non-conference games this year, so people don’t really see how special she is.”
The same might be said for the team. No one outside of the Mountain West has faced them this season, so there might be more surprises in store from the Rebels.
Hayden said that is the mentality she and her teammates are taking to Omaha.
“I definitely think we can surprise some people,” she said. “We’re going in with nothing to lose. The next step is making a run. We might be underestimated because we aren’t from a Power 5 conference.”
Added Sullivan: “I’m just thankful they had the opportunity to play. They’re pretty proud of the culture that they have built, and winning just comes along with that. For us, we want to play UNLV volleyball and what that stands for: being relentless, intentional and positive.”
More importantly, Sullivan and her players are intent on making sure this season isn’t a one-off. They want to go on the type of run Colorado State had.
Hayden said she is planning on returning for a fifth season — a luxury bestowed by the NCAA because of all the schedule disruptions brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. She is confident this will be the first of many trips to the NCAA Tournament for the Rebels.
“Now that we know what we’re capable of, this is more of the expectation,” she said. “When I came in my freshman year, we were like, ‘Oh, we’re just here to play some volleyball.’ Now, (winning) is an expectation.”
Illinois State was 1-2 in the Missouri Valley when the Redbirds turned it on en route to finishing league play 11-3. Kaylee Martin leads with 297 kills (4.07/set), has 209 digs, and 38 blocks. Sarah Kushner has 239 kills, 223 digs, 33 aces, and 37 blocks. Nicole Lund leads with 86 blocks (1.13/set) and has 139 kills. The digs leader is Kendal Meier (384, 5.05/set).
Illinois State won its last six Valley matches and then in the conference tournament, swept Indiana State, beat Bradley — which swept the Redbirds to open MVC play in January — in four, and beat Loyola in the final in four.