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After disappointing 2022, Western Michigan (12-2) rediscovered its mojo overseas

WMU coach Colleen Munson

There was disappointment. There were tears. There were more than a few questions.

How did we get here? How did we let this happen?

That’s how the 2022 season ended for Western Michigan. A program accustomed to a certain amount of success under coach Colleen Munson — nine 20-win seasons and four NCAA Tournaments — was on the outside looking in at the Mid-American Conference tournament.

The 9-9 finish in the MAC Western Division was tough enough to swallow, but it was even more difficult for the Broncos knowing they dropped five five-set conference matches. The last two were the deal-breakers: Back-to-back 3-2 losses to Central Michigan in mid-November.

“We found different ways to lose,” said Munson, now in her 19th season at WMU.

So how could they make 2023 different?

One of the first questions Munson got from her players was: Who is coming in for next season? The coach’s answer probably was jarring: no one.

“We have everything it takes right here,” Munson told her players. “We have it, and we have to develop it, and that’s on me. Everyone wants, in this day and age, who’s in the transfer portal? Who can come from X, Y, Z school? Can we get an international recruit? No. We have it in-house.”

Nearly a year later, the Broncos look nothing like the team that limped down the stretch last fall. They are 12-2, which includes a sweep of Michigan and a four-set win over Wake Forest — and opened last weekend with back-to-back victories at Miami, Ohio.

A bigger challenge awaits when MAC power Bowling Green visits Kalamazoo on Thursday and Friday nights.

“No one gives you confidence,” Munson said. “They step on the court, and that’s their choice … They made a choice and a decision to not go back to where they were a year ago.”

To rediscover their game, the Broncos had to go halfway around the world.

During the offseason, Western Michigan was due for its overseas trip the NCAA allows every five years. The Broncos went to Venice and Milan in Italy and Istanbul in Türkiye to face various clubs and national teams.

The Broncos in Istanbul

The competition a college team faces, Munson explained, is arranged based on their RPI from the previous season. So with the Broncos finishing out of their conference tournament, they were given “easier” competition to start.

But after they tied their first opponent — Munson said the other team didn’t want to play a fifth set — Tim Kelly, a former UCLA player who arranged the trip via his Bring It Promotions company, was impressed.

“Oh my gosh,” Munson said, repeating Kelly’s words, “you’re not lining up with your RPI from last year.”

From there, the Broncos were put up against better teams. And beat them all.

Munson said the success in Europe had nothing to do with any schematic changes she made. She left the X’s and O’s alone. What changed, she said, was the players’ mentality.

“Things change from day to day,” said fifth-year outside hitter Maggie King, a three-time All-MAC first-teamer. “Teams get pulled in every which direction, so we were just kind of ready for anything, and that in itself was a mental challenge because we didn’t have a scout or anything.

“But I think that was honestly great for us, and it let us play free … and we played very cohesively.

“Part of the mental side is overthinking, and I think we did that a lot last year. When you don’t know what to expect, you can’t overthink. There’s nothing you can think about. … If you get overconsumed with the scout, they you don’t play your own game.”

Western Michigan setter Logan Case/WMU photo

Senior setter Logan Case, who has played with King for 11 years going back to their time with Elevation Volleyball Club in Ohio, concurred. The spontaneous nature of the matches in Europe unlocked a treasure trove of resolve the Broncos didn’t know they had.

“All we have is our own team and our own system of volleyball to play with,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what they (opponents) do. We don’t have time to figure it out. We can’t scout them. Let’s go out there, put our best out there and see if it works.

“We were on our feet all day for eight hours of shopping, sight-seeing, learning different things. On a boat, on a plane, whatever it was, then we had to go play a volleyball game. I think everyone thinks, ‘Oh, I need to get this food in and this warmup in and I need to have this game routine.’ And here, we just kind of got thrown into situations against really good opponents.

“Just having to go play volleyball on the spot was really huge for surpassing that mental barrier of what we think we need to play a really good game of volleyball.”

So they brought that mentality back to the States, and, Munson said, fans and family members who watched the team’s early matches didn’t recognize them. The change was that evident.

And it wasn’t just how the Broncos were playing. It was who was making the plays.

Over the past couple of seasons, the team had come to rely heavily on King in critical moments. More often than not, she delivered. Problem was, everybody else in the gym knew King was getting the ball in those moments.

The result, Munson said, was King getting 60 to 70 swings every match, and the Broncos started to become predictable. That led to the other big change from last season: give King some help.

Case admitted some of the blame fell to her. Because of her longstanding relationship with King, it was only natural to look for her when a ball needed to be put down.

Now, the Broncos’ attack is much more diversified. King isn’t even leading the team in kills per set. That distinction belongs to Keona Salesman, a 6-foot-1 outside from Coldwater, Mich., who spent her first two seasons at Division II Ferris State. The senior has 171 kills (3.64/set) and is hitting .327.

Salesman was the MAC West offensive player of the week in each of the first three weeks this season.

King, a graduate student from Cincinnati, has 159 kills (3.46/set) and  Anna Calcagno, a senior from St. Charles, Illinois, has 143. Calcagno, who transferred after two seasons at Marshall, leads the Broncos with 41 blocks, five solo.

“Now (King) is playing a game that she can play with her teammates,” Munson said, “not 1 v. 6 across the net.”

Added Case, also a three-time All-MAC first-teamer from Maineville, Ohio: “That’s been huge for Maggie’s mental game and mine as well. I think in the past we relied on Maggie to be that person to get us out of any kind of trouble, and I think she kind of had a lot of weight on her back.

“People have really started to step up, and she can play her own game and not feel like she has the weight of the world on her shoulders to win every game and win every point and be that person at the point of pressure.”

King said Salesman’s style is a nice complement to her own. Whereas King, at only 5-10, has to rely more on shot-making than physicality to get kills, the athletic Salesman hits aggressively and at a higher point, so defenses can’t try to block them the same way.

Case, meanwhile, has developed the same kind of confidence in Salesman that she has in King.

“I can throw any ball at (her). I can set (her) any ball – in system, out of system, just kind of an emergency ball – and she’s going to find a way to get a kill or at least get the other team in trouble,” Case said.

Sophomore middle Mary Clare “MC” Brusek contributes 1.95 kills per set, and fellow sophomore middle Amanda Glanton – at 6-3 the Broncos’ tallest player – averages 1.30 kills per set while hitting at a ridiculous .479 clip.

Of course, King is still doing her thing, averaging 3.43 kills per set.

“I wanted to become more unpredictable,” she said. “I realized I needed to build my toolbox of shots, and that’s what I really tried to do during the offseason. Because I don’t hit at a high point’ I’m working on other things.

“I think that has allowed me to become a more aggressive player. Not necessarily one that’s hitting the ball straight to the ground all the time but just that stays in plays and gets the other side out of system.”

Munson said she generally goes with a middle-blocker-by-committee approach, sticking with whomever seems to have the hot hand that day.

Then there is libero Andelyn “Andy” Simkins. She’s the secret weapon who might not remain a secret much longer. The 5-10 senior from Schoolcraft, Michigan, is stellar in serve receive and averages 4.45 digs per set.

Andelyn Simkins

Simkins came to Western Michigan as an outside hitter, but, Munson said, injuries led to a change in position.

“She kept getting hurt because she plays every point so aggressively,” Munson said. “At her height and her size, every rep had to be at her max because of the block that was in front of her.”

Finally, Munson said she approached Simkins with the idea of moving to libero. Simkins was thrilled, and she has thrived in the position. Her length enables her to cover a lot of ground, and, Munson said, she is solid in her technique.

“Andy is by far the best libero, serve-receive wise, that we’ve ever seen,” Munson said. “A friend of mine who commentates for Auburn and Georgia Tech and Clemson saw us play (last) weekend and said, ‘You are the best libero I have ever seen. You will have a professional career because you are that good.’ ”

Added King: “She’s finally starting to get the recognition that she deserves. She’s kind of a quiet player. Not quiet in the sense of talking, but you don’t really recognize the impact she has until you realize (the opponent) can’t hit the ball to the ground because Andy is getting everything up.

“She’s the hardest worker on the team by far. She will never take her foot off the gas pedal.”

The Broncos haven’t let up on the gas themselves through their nonconference schedule. But how does all that translate into the MAC?

Though not a Power 5 conference, the MAC, Munson said, is recognized as being a closely contested league where the separation between teams is razor-thin. Ball State and Bowling Green are NCAA regulars, but not without having to win some battles in their own conference.

Winning the conference and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament are the goals. It started last fall with those devastating losses.

“We were like, ‘Championship season starts today,’ ” King said. “I think all of us really took ownership of that, to do what we needed to do individually to come back in the spring and really get to work on the things teams were exposing us on.

“Last year we had a really good preseason, but once conference play started, it really dipped down. And I really don’t foresee that happening this year.”

Added Case: “We’ve tirelessly worked at our vision, our mission and what we want our season to look like. I think this year, we finally were like, ‘Guys, aren’t we really sick of not being the team that’s on top?’

“That’s on our board at practice: MAC champion. We have our sights set on hosting the tournament and crushing it and getting an NCAA Tournament berth.”