For Kate Witte, Nov. 12th was a return to the promised land.
Ohio Northern’s head volleyball coach, now in her 26th year at the helm, has made it to the NCAA tournament 20 times, including a stretch of 11 straight appearances from 2000-2010. She has been to ten Sweet 16’s, four Elite Eight’s and one Final Four.
But her Polar Bears have made just one national tournament appearance in the last five years, when they were bounced by Wittenberg in the first round in 2012.
Following a 2016 campaign where Northern won the OAC regular season and tournament for the first time since 2008 (the year ONU went to the Final Four), Witte’s Bears are back in the NCAA tournament as a three-seed in the competitive Great Lakes Region.
It’s been a long wait for Witte, but one worthwhile.
“People think that those who win–like, fortunately, my program–just take it for granted that we’re going to win the conference and win the tournament and get to the NCAAs [every year]. It’s really hard to do,” Witte said. “And I think it’s been a self-reflective thing for me.”
“I think I realized just how well we did it for so long, and how hard that was. Once you’re at the top, you’re eventually going to fall, and it’s hard to remain there and not get complacent. But when you get back up there, you realize how much work it took, after five years of not being there.”
Not only did Northern get back to the top of the OAC this season; they did it in dominant fashion.
The Bears went undefeated in the conference for the first time since that magical 2008 season, losing just four sets in twelve total OAC matches this season. The team has won 19 straight matches, dating back to Sept. 17, when it last lost to 14th-ranked Carnegie Mellon in an intense five-set bout.
Northern capped off its 27-3 regular season with an OAC tournament championship on Saturday, a dramatic five-set triumph over Heidelberg at King-Horn. The Bears finally knocked off the Student Princes, who beat the team in five sets in last year’s OAC tournament final and dashed the team’s national tournament hopes. Heidelberg had also won five of the last seven OAC regular season titles, although Northern halted that theme this season as well.
“Holding that trophy on Saturday was such a great feeling,” senior setter Ashley Borchers said. “We have worked so hard for this for many years and for that to show and be on top of the OAC is such a great accomplishment.”
Borchers was named Co-Player of the Year in the OAC, while six other Polar Bears received all-conference honors. While Northern was anchored by Borchers and the team’s seven upperclassmen, the play of the team’s eight freshmen (four of whom start) is what pushed Northern to the next level this season.
Freshmen Chelsea Huppert and McKenna Jordan, who are second and third respectively on the team in kills, were named Honorable Mention in the conference. Freshman McKenna Hostetler is second on the team in digs and proved to be a vital defensive piece to this year’s team, while outside hitters Sydney Bapst and Sydney Fecko were both valuable offensive players for the Bears.
“At first, you always have the fear of the freshmen not being ready for the speed of the game,”