by Ryan Mitchell

All eyes are on the University of Northwestern – St. Paul volleyball team this season coming off of their  Final Four appearance last year.  With all the excitement and energy present,  some may wonder what the team thinks of this “noise” early on in the season.  This year the team is rallying around a quote posted on social media by coach Beth Wilmeth.  This quote responds to media posts mentioning UNW’s rise in the polls by stating, “Not a target but a platform.  Not pressure, but an opportunity.”

Wilmeth and senior standouts Abby Neuberger (outside hitter) and Leesa Malone (right side hitter/setter) each gave their thoughts on the team.  When asked about the pressure that the team may feel to repeat last year’s success Wilmeth mentioned you can see that “everyone’s excited for the season and this group.”  Wilmeth said, “The opportunity is to hopefully reflect Christ because there’s more people looking at us and more people paying attention to us, and hopefully if they’re looking at us they are seeing Christ, so that’s the opportunity.”

A long, taxing and emotional season can make it tough to keep the right frame of mind, and Neuberger is well aware of this.  She outlined how the team “can choose to have a perspective that win or lose it doesn’t matter because we belong to Christ, and that’s what we’ve been really pushing because it’s going to be a struggle for people no matter what.”

This program is unique in how Malone points out that this team has “higher expectations off the court, just to get to that standard where we need to be to get to the Final Four.”  She also mentioned that “we (as a team) talk about that number four last year and talking about it helps because I feel like if we don’t talk about it, it’s the elephant in the room,” and that as a team “you can’t be number four (in the country) and then pretend it never existed and start all over.”

A phrase often heard in sports is that a team has the chance to “seize an opportunity,” and the Eagles can most certainly relate to this with their very talented and experienced roster.  Neuberger explained that this year’s team has a “really good opportunity to practice humility.”  She added that the more experienced players on this team are in the process of “learning to be humble and give credit to the younger players, who are probably a little bit more insecure about their role on the team,” and that this has been huge to go through as a team.

Wilmeth said, “There’s something bigger than the wins and losses; it’s the little opportunities that we have to have eyes open for.”

There are those who realize they are in a position to use a platform that they possess in an area of their life and those who either don’t recognize the platform they have or choose to not use it for anything impactful.  Malone talked about UNW’s platform in how they strive to defer “the spotlight onto Christ and off of ourselves.”  She added that the team has to “take the daily mindset (of saying to yourself) that I’m going to come into this game and play with joy and love.”  Malone also stated the team has to make sure to “do the little things intentionally, so that teams look at us and say wow, there’s something different about them.”  She said that for this team “setting an example of what Christ-like competitive women can be is kind of cool.”  Wilmeth said, “Winning is the currency in sports and if you win a lot, your platform increases.”  She said, “Reaching the Final Four last year, the platform is really big for us right now.”  In addition, Wilmeth mentioned that the team has “more opportunity to reach people and hopefully just be a little bit more counter-cultural in our approach to sports.”

As Christians competing in sports, there is an element to displaying the right attitude in the wins and losses in order to show there is more to a person’s meaning than just his/her success on the playing surface.  Malone described the importance of the Eagles’ attitude while on court in how the team’s “big mission this year is ’out-teaming’ the other team in how we bring more joy, bring more energy, cheer louder and have more fun is what it is.”  She said, “Our team is very focused, and we’re a very skill-based team, and we know we can succeed, we just have to have joy with it.”

Reflecting Christ and turning the attention to Him is very important to this Eagles team.  Wilmeth emphasized that it is “easy to have your identity in your success and in your ranking” and that “we (the team) want to make sure our identity is rooted in something that doesn’t vary, and that’s who Christ is.”  She elaborated that “it’s a struggle for me, both of those things (wanting to win and reflect Christ), and I’m honest about it with the girls; I want to win, and I want to represent Christ well, but it’s easy to sway one way or the other, and I think as long as we are fighting for balance then we’re in the right place.”

This Eagles team as a whole knows there is a lot of hype surrounding the program, but they constantly draw back to and keep in mind that they are “not a target but a platform” and that it might be “not pressure, but an opportunity.”

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