It might take a while until the St. Thomas volleyball team realizes what it accomplished this season. After a tough loss in the NCAA quarterfinals to an experienced Juniata College, emotions will cloud things for some time. But all players need to do is look around at where they are, in St. Louis, to realize how special their season has been.
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Since 2005, St. Thomas has lost three times in the regional championship match. But everything came together Nov. 14, and the Tommies threw the monkey off their back with a 3-0 sweep of St. Olaf. For years, St. Thomas has been the perennial MIAC powerhouse that couldn’t quite get over the hump and make it to the national tournament, but that label has now been cast aside.
“It means so much to us,” senior Jill Osborne said. “We made history for everyone. Not just for us, but for everyone in the St. Thomas community.”
That community has responded.
“We get a lot of e-mails from alums and they’re ecstatic for us,” coach Thanh Pham said. “I told our freshmen, ‘You can’t take this for granted. [Assistant coach] Dave Orren’s been doing this for 34 years and he finally got a chance to come to one of these.’”
It may be hard to comprehend for the freshmen, who were still in diapers when Orren had already been coaching for 15 years. But seniors on the team were able to acknowledge how much this season has meant to them after four years in the program.
“It’s so exciting making it here,” senior Alesha Nelson said. “It’s been such an awesome experience playing volleyball for St. Thomas and I’m proud of the team that I play for and the coaches that I play for.”
St. Thomas’ opponents Friday were the complete opposite when it comes to NCAA playoff experience. The Juniata Eagles, hailing from Pennsylvania, have advanced to at least the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament every year it has been held. Their coach, Larry Bock, has more wins than any NCAA volleyball coach, at any level.
“It was a new experience,” Nelson said. “I think emotions play into a lot of it, and I think it being our first time, we were feeling it out still. They had that experience on us.”
That experience proved a huge advantage for Juniata as it showed off an ability to close out sets, something that eluded St. Thomas all afternoon. By the end of the game, Juniata had finished off the Tommies’ match, playoffs and season. St. Thomas will have plenty of time to consider what went wrong in the match, but they will have just as long to consider what went right all year long.
“Our whole season we worked so hard,” Osborne said. “That’s what matters.”
Osborne, along with six other seniors, will not have a chance to repeat this year’s success, but they leave behind a legacy of the most successful season in St. Thomas history. Pham is hopeful about the effect that will have on younger players on the team.
“I think our freshmen will go back and tell everyone else,” Pham said. “Hopefully we’ll be back here again.”
Even though she’s done on the court, Osborne said she is excited about the future of the St. Thomas program after this year’s historic performance.
“Every year is a new building block,” she said. “I can’t wait to see what’s next.”
Jordan Osterman can be reached at email@example.com.