by Tatyana Breitkreuz

The University of Northwestern — St. Paul women’s volleyball team has had one of their best seasons in Eagle history. Starting off with a four home-game winning streak, the Northwestern women were set up for a successful season.

Coach Beth Wilmeth, who received her sixth UMAC Coach of the Year honor, led her team to 34 wins and only four losses this season, including a 3-2 home victory against the number-one ranked Cal Lutheran University in the NCAA Division III Regional Tournament.

“Last spring our players took time to map out team standards,” said Wilmeth. “They didn’t back away or make excuses, but set very high expectations for themselves. We’ve seen an incredible work ethic and discipline in our program, and that has been matched with a spirit of selflessness — all key ingredients to our success.”

For the first time in school history, Wilmeth and her team took to the court at the Elite Eight, playing Eastern University of Oshkosh, Wisconsin. Northwestern fans stormed the court after the shocking 3-2 win, ending in a group prayer and looking ahead to their upcoming competition.  The next day, the Eagles made an appearance at the NCAA DIII Final Four.

“Being able to spend extra time with the team and get to play on almost the biggest platform we could was so much fun,” said junior Lindsey Peterson.

From right to left Abby Vander Galien (7), Jackie Doering (2), Leesa Hulstrand (22), Lindsey Peterson (1), Toria Gillson (6). Northwestern capped off their best season in school history with a trip to the Final Four in the DIII National Tournament. No Northwestern sports team had ever advanced past the Sweet 16, but both the volleyball squad (2015) and men’s basketball team (2015) made it to that point before falling (photo courtesy of unweagles.com).

From right to left Abby Vander Galien (7), Jackie Doering (2), Leesa Hulstrand (22), Lindsey Peterson (1), Toria Gillson (6). Northwestern capped off their best season in school history with a trip to the Final Four in the DIII National Tournament. No Northwestern sports team had ever advanced past the Sweet 16, but both the volleyball squad (2015) and men’s basketball team (2015) made it to that point before falling (photo courtesy of unweagles.com).

“The Final Four was surreal in many ways,” said Wilmeth. “It changes your perspective on what it takes to get to that level. We were prepared and ready for the moment when the opportunity happened.” The Eagles ended their successful season as they challenged Calvin College in a thrilling match that resulted in a Northwestern 0-3 loss. One concept that Wilmeth reiterated to her players throughout the season was that what they become is more important than what they achieve.

Junior Leesa Hulstrand shared how her team made a strong effort to compete for something greater than themselves.

“At the Final Four, we had a bigger platform to show that we were a different team because our ultimate goal was not an earthly scoreboard, but to make a heavenly impact,” said Hulstrand.

“The Final 4 was such a fun experience, but the heart of our program is more about the process and the growth that the Lord is doing in us,” said Wilmeth.  “I’m really proud of watching our players enjoy the moment while not letting it become our identity. We wanted to plant seeds by being uncommon.”

With a successful team effort has come outstanding individual performances. Northwestern has welcomed seven freshmen on their team this year along with three seniors, four juniors and four sophomores. Peterson (Sheffield, Iowa/West Fork) has had an impressive year, leading her team with 607 kills with an average of 4.78 kills per set. She has been a tenacious offensive and defensive player for the Eagles, being named the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) DIII National Player of the Year and a First Team All-American.

Peterson shares that she owes all of her success to her coaches and teammates because they have put an immense amount of time into pushing her to become a better player and individual.

“This year was one of my best college years, though every year has its own unique way of being great,” said Peterson. “I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything without my team’s constant love, intentionality and encouragement.”

“Lindsey had an incredible season and is such a hard worker on our team,” said Wilmeth.  “She is very-deserving, and to be named National Player of the Year is something that’s hard to put into words — a huge accomplishment.”

Along with Peterson’s exceedance within her volleyball career has come her development into a mature role model and Christ-follower.

“Who she is today as a leader and person is so different than when she first came to Northwestern,” said Wilmeth. “It is fun to see the Lord honoring her in her desire to honor Him.”

Senior Shanay Gondor (Cedar Rapids, Iowa/Washington) was also nationally recognized, receiving Honorable Mention All-American. This was Gondor’s last year playing for the Eagles, totaling an outstanding career record of 572 kills, 29 assists, 82 digs and 295 blocks.

Lindsey Peterson is junior Kinesiology/ Pre-Therapy major. She won player of the year (photo courtesy of unweages.com).

Lindsey Peterson is junior Kinesiology/ Pre-Therapy major. She won player of the year (photo courtesy of unweages.com).

“My time in the volleyball program has been extremely influential in shaping me as a woman,” said Gondor. “I’ve been stretched and given leadership roles that have transferred into greater confidence outside of the sport.” The senior has been impacted by the work God has done in and through those who competed before her and those who will follow after her.

“I’m probably not even aware of all the ways God has used volleyball to reveal more of Himself to me,” said Gondor. “It has been a great four years, and the legacy of the program and the experience I’ve had is a testimony to those who have worked to maintain the culture before me.”

Other outstanding performances include sophomore Freya Hanson (Otsego, Minnesota/St. Michael-Albertville) who recorded an impressive 282 kills, followed by Hulstrand (Eden Prairie, Minnesota/Eden Prairie) with 176 kills in her three-year college career.

Every season is unique with its mixture of players, but this year stood out as one of the best in Eagle history.

“This season taught us that hard work, love and unselfishness pays off,” said Hulstrand. When we work together for a common goal, anything is possible.”

“Our team’s willingness to be pushed and to handle challenges has been met with a tone of excitement and joy,” said Wilmeth. “Certainly some days it was a grind when there was hard work to be done, but the players were intentional to keep it fun.” A strong work ethic, discipline, selflessness and leadership are what Wilmeth believes what enabled her team to reach such great heights this season.

“I am so excited for next season,” said Hulstrand. “This season has set the standard for next year.”

“We’ve seen an incredible work ethic and discipline in our program, and that has been matched with a spirit of selflessness — all key ingredients to our success,” concluded Wilmeth.

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