By Jorge Mercado for VolleyballMag.com
When they were in high school, Rylin Adams and Ashlyn Power weren’t sure that NCAA Division I volleyball was in their future.
Both knew they wanted to keep playing, but they were left wanting — until Weber State knocked on the door.
Now, the two are nearing the end of a special run in the program’s history.
Weber State is 15-5 overall and atop the Big Sky Conference at 10-0. The Wildcats, who have swept their last seven matches, will play at Sacramento State (11-10, 5-5) on Thursday and at second-place Portland State (14-7, 8-2) on Saturday.
“Weber State was my only offer. That’s the case for a lot of the girls on our team,” Adams said, “so we are a bunch of misfits who have a chip on our shoulder every single time we go on the court.”
This is not a one-time success for the program from Ogden, Utah. In 2019, Weber State lost in the Big Sky tournament final. Last spring, it went 19-2 and 15-1 in the Big Sky and then knocked off Bowling Green before losing to Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament.
Adams, a 5-foot-9 senior outside from Lehi, Utah (about 65 miles south of Ogden), has volleyball in her blood — her mother played at Idaho State, also of the Big Sky.
“I was crushed when they didn’t offer me,” Adams said with a laugh. Idaho State missed out on a player who was the Big Sky MVP in the 2021 spring season and an honorable-mention All-American in VolleyballMag.com selections.
Adams has 280 kills and leads the conference with 3.84 per set. She also has 28 aces and 22 blocks and averages 2.53 digs.
Power, a 5-8 senior setter from Lincoln, Nebraska, was first-team All-Big Sky last spring, when she set the program record for assists. She now has 5,156 career assists to rank No. 2 in Big Sky history and has a shot at the record.
This season, Power is averaging 9.12 assists per set, is second on the team with 31 aces, averages 2.70 digs and has 14 blocks.
“It’s cool to be recognized and get these stats, but none of it is possible without my teammates,” Power said.
“It’s a testament to them, and how great of hitters they are.… I wouldn’t have been able to do it without all the people that came before me.”
One of those hitters is sophomore Dani Nay, a 5-10 outside from Nampa, Idaho. Another Big Sky first-teamer who also was a VBM honorable-mention All-American last spring, Nay is second to Adams with 257 kills (3.52/set) and leads the team with 52 aces. She’s also second to libero Makayla Sorensen (4.01 digs/set) at 3.07 digs per set and has 21 blocks.
The program’s turnaround started with the hiring of Jeremiah Larsen as coach in 2015. A Utah native, he was an assistant for four years at Utah State and before that was an assistant at Missouri State.
The season before he was hired, Weber State finished 7-24 overall and 3-13 in the Big Sky, and three years before, Damian Lillard, now an NBA star, was lighting up Weber State’s basketball arena.
“The administration didn’t have any care for the volleyball program. Damian Lillard and basketball, that was the perception, especially in Utah,” said Larsen, who added that he applied for the job to gain experience.
But, perceptions change. Larsen said that the administration was irritated that so many great volleyball players in Utah were signing with other programs, including others in the Big Sky.
Larsen said administrators told him they were ready to invest more in the program, including in facilities and budgets. He took the job.
“There was pressure taking the job but not more than what I already put on myself as a volleyball coach, the pressure I put on me to be the best coach,” he said.
Still, even with a better financial commitment, winning at Weber State was no small task.
From 2010 to 2014, the program was a combined 32-125, averaging 20 losses in those five seasons. Weber State also finished last in the conference several times and was a combined 15-73 in league play.
But, Larsen knew the type of player he wanted, even if they has no other offers, like Adams and Power.
“It was really hard at first, but we jokingly kid that we just recruited a bunch of kids that nobody wanted, a bunch of rejects, my first two or three years” Larsen said.
“But we found kids that had a chip on their shoulder like their coach and wanted to be successful, and we’re willing to do what was necessary to be that.”
Nay had some others offers but ultimately chose Weber State because of Larsen.
“I cannot imagine playing anywhere else. It’s been extremely hard and extremely challenging in every way, but I cannot imagine playing, I would never want to, anywhere else,” Nay said.
In Larsen’s first season, things didn’t change much — Weber State went 6-22 and 2-14 in Big Sky play. Over the next two years, the team was a combined 22-33 in the conference, a marginal improvement but still a ways from making the Big Sky Tournament.
“It’s really hard to preach a message, and you teach a message to those kids that we are doing the right things, but sometimes seeing the fruits of their labors is not exactly in the cards for a certain season,” Larsen said.
“But for some reason, they kept believing in me, and I believed in them, and by the time some of them were done playing, we were competing.”
That belief struck a chord with Power.
“Having someone believe in you like that is a super powerful thing,” she said.
“It can either put pressure on you or empower you, and that’s what I think it did for me. Jeremiah would tell me about the things he thought I could do, and it motivated me to just work harder.”
In 2018, the team saw its first hint of success, finishing 18-10 overall and 13-5 in the conference, making the Big Sky Tournament for the first time in more than 10 years.
Northern Colorado swept Weber State in the first round, but Power said it was one of her favorite moments as a Wildcat.
“For those seniors that year who had been on teams that won next to no games, for them to get to end their career going to the conference tournament was pretty awesome,” Power said.
From there success snowballed. The next year, Weber State made it to the Big Sky championship game, losing in five to Northern Colorado.
“It tore my heart out … it probably took me a good two months to feel solid,” Larsen said.
Then came the shortened season. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic raged, Adams, Power and fellow senior Sam Schiess were on Zoom calls with Larsen, staying in shape and hoping they’d get a chance to play at least one more season.
When they did get that chance, they didn’t miss a beat. Weber State went 19-2 in the spring, lost just one conference match en route to its first Big Sky title since 1988 and beat Northern Colorado in four in the tournament final.
“It was special. Losing so closely to Northern Colorado and then beating them on their floor the next year. I can’t say enough about the players we have,” Larsen said.
“We lost the first set and they were just like ‘if we tighten up, we can kick the crap out of them.’ And it wasn’t a disrespectful thing, it was a confidence thing, they knew what we had.”
The Wildcats then accomplished something no other Weber State team had done, winning an NCAA Tournament match when it beat Bowling Green.
“It’s really difficult to put into words, and I still get emotional thinking about it,” Power said.
“What made it special is that this is about more than the game, more than volleyball, it’s about the relationships that we’ve built with each other. Everything that you learn through the hard work you put in to turn the program around, it’s a painful process, but we wouldn’t be where we are without all of those growing pains.”
Weber State has just six Big Sky matches left and then will be the host team for the conference tournament November 18-20.
“I am just soaking up every single day that I can. I’ve been here for five seasons, and I don’t ever want it to end. I never get sick of volleyball, and I am just really grateful for the opportunity to have to be here and to be playing every day,” Adams said.
Nay will be back with a chance to take the program to even newer heights.
“I want to leave a legacy like the girls before me. It’s easier for me to recognize the hard work that got put into the program just because I kind of caught the tail end of it,” Nay said.
“So I just want to be able to pass along to the new girls coming in how much hard work that it took to get there and how much hard work it has taken to maintain this level.”