When the Omaha volleyball team’s bus broke down three times on the Mavericks’ long trip for two conference matches, the first ones of the 2018 season, coach Rose Shires could not have known how her team would respond.
After all, her roster includes 14 players who are freshmen or sophomores.
But Omaha held up just fine in that chaos, topping South Dakota State and North Dakota State to launch the Summit League slate in style. Now they are 5-0 in conference (10-7 overall) — tied with Denver for the lead — and on the cusp of becoming more than a nuisance to the league’s traditional powers.
Next up is Friday’s road contest vs. South Dakota (11-7, 5-1) and then Sunday’s home match with Oral Roberts (6-12, 3-3).
Shires, who won her 500th career match in that North Dakota State five-set showdown, has always liked the vibe of her young squad, and she really enjoyed their collective savvy on that stop-and-start road trip.
“The team had a lot of grit and determination. The bus broke down three times on way to South Dakota, and then we were delayed to North Dakota because of waiting for new bus, and it threw our whole weekend off. For a young team, that could have been catastrophic,” Shires said.
“They did a great job of understanding what wasn’t in our control, and to take control of what we could and go at it.
“That transitioned onto the floor. Those teams come at you hard, and they’ll get big kills and big stuff blocks on you and get ahead in a match, and you have to fight and come back. Or you get ahead, and you have to finish it off. We have to learn with every opportunity we have. To do what they did on the road gave them a lot of confidence they could handle pressure and the unknown.”
In the middle of that mess was middle blocker Isabella Sade, a sophomore from Marion, Iowa, who is second on the team in kills and is a pivot point for the increasingly skilled Omaha program. She was Summit League freshman of the year in 2017, the first Mustang to claim that honor.
“It definitely helped with our confidence. Starting out conference on the road with two road wins was huge,” Sade said. “There’s no place like home, but having to play in those tough places … North Dakota State’s home crowd is amazing, and being able to play under that pressure and play when everyone in the gym is rooting against you, that proves we can compete with high level teams and beat them.”
And when it comes to levels, Shires could tell you a million stories.
Now in her 29th season in Omaha, Shires crafted a Division-II powerhouse for decades when the program was known as UNO (University of Nebraska Omaha), winning the 1996 D-II national title and reaching the NCAA tournament 11 times, but then the footing changed completely in 2011 when the volleyball program jumped up to D-I.
The change was sudden, and the resulting impact on the win-loss front was hardly surprising, as the Mavericks have lost 19 or more matches in five of the seven seasons in Division I.
But as you’d gather from how they handled the bus fiasco in September, Shires and her team don’t sulk in difficult situations.
“Going from being a perennial power in Division II and having opportunities to win national championships and conference championships every year, and then making the transition … the biggest difficulty for us was not having the advance knowledge we were going to Division I, for recruiting purposes,” Shires said.
“It’s difficult to catch up in a quick fashion. To take players on my team, who were stellar Division II players … the first two years, the only teams that would play us outside a few of the ones in the conference we were transitioning to, were regional (powers) like Iowa State, Kansas State, Kansas, Minnesota.
“It was very difficult for our players to know every time they stepped on the floor, they really didn’t have an opportunity to win and compete. We had to be very direct talking to the players about what we were defining success as … to give them building blocks.”
In fact, the Mavericks nearly sprang a colossal upset in the 2015 Summit League tournament, reaching the final and coming up just three points short from claiming a berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Hopes for a 2018 version of a late run will rest heavily on freshman right side Sadie Limback (the team’s kills leader with 175, 2.73/set) and classmate Sydney Case (the setter, averaging 11.51 assists per set), along with four essential sophomores in Sade, Claire Leonard (161 kills), Anna Blaschko (166) and Claire Mountjoy (team leader in digs with 251).
“All of us are different, and we all bring something different to the table. One of us may really loud, one of us may be calm, cool and collected, and we all bring a piece of ourselves to the court,” Sade said. “We are figuring out how to make it all jell together. Our coaches have said we have a chance to do something special, so the standards are high and at practice they make sure we are always pushing to be better.
“We want to win the serve and pass battle, get opponents out of system, because that makes it easier on our defense and block. We also want to focus on limiting other team’s runs — if we get two points they get one; if they get three, we get four.”
“The beauty of this team and this group is they really have embraced and honor each other for their own individual personalities. This is a team that is led by committee,” Shires said. “It just works, and it’s been a long time since I’ve had a team that clicked this well, without any forced or pressed communication. This is not a team that likes to be yelled at or likes to yell at each other. We have goofy kids, some who are loud and boisterous and some who are quiet and introverted, but they all work together well. It’s not something we planned and designed — it’s just who they are, working and leading together.”
In a volleyball-rich state that includes Nebraska and Creighton, Omaha continues to make big strides.
Or as Sade said, “We’re putting Omaha on the map, and we’re getting more support and more of a fan base.”