by Shelby Eden

After making a Sweet 16 appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament last year and carrying a national ranking this year, the University of Northwestern- St. Paul women’s volleyball team prepares for the 2016 season through a Christ-minded, humble mentality while embracing a tenacious yet joyful competitive spirit.

Shanay Gonder (11) and Leesa Hulstrand (22) are part if an Eagles squad that has dominated opponents so far this season, ahead of UMAC play. Gonder and Hulstrand have combined for 80 kills this season (photo by Greta Elsholtz).

Shanay Gonder (11) and Leesa Hulstrand (22) are part if an Eagles squad that has dominated opponents so far this season, ahead of UMAC play. Gonder and Hulstrand have combined for 80 kills this season (photo by Greta Elsholtz).

Before the Eagles even stepped onto the game floor of the 2016 season, the women’s volleyball team faced a season filled with high expectations. In addition to coming off a 28-win season and making a deep playoff run in the 2015 NCAA tournament last season, in August, the Eagles earned a No. 23 ranking in the 2016 American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Preseason Poll and received the unanimous vote to win the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference.

Jumping to a 4-0 start and improving their no. 23 national ranking to a no. 18 national ranking by Sept. 6, the Eagles look as if they are on the path to continue their frenetic winning ways in the new season.

Although the novelty and excitement of these preseason accolades resonates throughout the team, head coach Beth Wilmeth understands the importance of keeping these expectations in perspective in order to focus on goals more gratifying for the team.

“We don’t talk much about national rankings or polls. At the same time, we want to maximize our talent and steward the opportunity we have to reflect Christ at the highest level possible,” she said.

Shanay Gonder, a senior captain and starting mid-hitter, has a similar perspective to Wilmeth as she challenges herself and her team to look beyond the rankings and statistics.

Gonder stated, “Our team has never been about playing solely to win. It’s a fun aspect of volleyball and it’s a joy to be able to use the gifts and abilities that God has given us on bigger platforms, but ultimately, our team is focused on competing in a way that centers around Christ being known and if He chooses to do that through the success of our team, that’s awesome.”

In addition to working to honor Christ above game statistics and rankings, members of the UNW volleyball team work diligently to serve and be invested in one another.

Wilmeth, who has garnered nine conference titles and six consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament in her 13 seasons with the Eagles, has aimed to establish a positive team culture that fuels the Eagles’ success year after year.

“Once selflessness and team unity are present, the possibilities are endless.” – Shanay Gonder

“I see four things that have made us consistently successful: selflessness, leadership, joy, and commitment,” she said. “Beyond our players’ work ethic in the off-season, there has to be a surrender of ‘self.’ We’ve seen our players really buy in to serving each other, regardless of position, playing time, or individual accolades.”

Gonder added, “Once selflessness and team unity are present, the possibilities are endless.”

Along with setting mental and spiritual goals, the team aims to prepare for matches by practicing with mental toughness and defensive tenacity while remaining passionate for the game.

Wilmeth stated, “Passing, or our first contact consistency, is what determines how effective our offense can be. But we’ve always said that the front door of our testimony on the court is tenacity, our first core covenant. That starts with our defense. For us to compete with high-caliber teams, defense is always going to be key.”

Gonder appreciates her team’s ability to perform the fundamentals and execute properly but also emphasizes the importance of athletes loving and enjoying the game they dedicate themselves to play.

“Ultimately, if it becomes more about the to-do list and less about enjoying this sport I think we will have lost the plot,” stated Gonder. “Our practices combine a lot of stretching drills with opportunities for athletic enjoyment. If goals aren’t met but the coaching staff is intentional about affirming what we’re doing well and stretching us in ways, that will pay off in the long run.

The Eagles will continue to work through their 32-game regular season schedule and will have their first dose of conference play this weekend as they compete in the UMAC Preview Tournament.

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