Bluejays’ lone senior a standout-and a 4-time champ

ORIGINALLY WRITTEN TOM STOPPEL
Erin Loewen and winning have become almost synonymous when it comes to Tabor College volleyball.

Before Loewen, the lone senior on this year’s team, joined the team in 2001, Tabor hadn’t won a Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference title since 1978.

Last week Loewen celebrated her fourth straight regular-season title, becoming the first woman in program history to accomplish the feat.

“I’ve never really thought about that, but it makes me feel pretty cool,” Loewen said. “Coming in as a freshman, and even after we won conference then, I don’t think I ever imagined we’d win three more.”

Loewen migrated to the Tabor campus after graduating from Augusta High School.

The daughter of Tabor alums Barbara and Ron Loewen, Erin earned honorable-mention all-league honors in the Chisholm Trail League as a junior and first team recognition her senior season.

Loewen said the family atmosphere that prevails at Tabor was the main reason she decided to become a Bluejay.

“I visited the school and liked what it was all about,” she said. “I got to meet the other girls and it really was all about the team here.”

Loewen, who also plays softball for Tabor, said Sterling College and Cowley County Community College also pursued her.

“But the fact that I could double-sport here was really exciting,” she said.

Another factor in her decision was the opportunity to play for coach Amy Ratzlaff.

“Coach Ratzlaff brings a personality that’s a lot like the girls, so she’s really easy for us to relate to,” Loewen said. “Sometimes coaches are a lot different than their players, and that makes it tough to communicate. But that’s not the case here.”

Ratzlaff said Loewen is a perfect fit for the Bluejay program.

“Erin fits everything I want Tabor volleyball to be known for,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s a strong leader, a great athlete, very mature, a great student and she works very hard.

“You can go on and on about Erin and everything about her is what you want to be able to say about your players,” Ratzlaff added.

“She’s always been that way. She’s grown as a player tremendously, but she has remained the same person I’m so thankful to have had for four years.”

It didn’t take long for Tabor to reap the benefits of Loewen’s presence. In her first year at Tabor, the Bluejays broke the 23-year championship drought.

“That year was a lot of fun and we accomplished a lot,” Loewen said. “I really didn’t realize how much, though, until I found out how long it had been since the school had won a title.”

But the year had a bittersweet ending when Tabor failed to win the post-season tournament, losing to Bethel College.

Loewen said her sophomore year was more of the same.

“I moved into outside-hitting position, which is where I always played in high school,” Loewen said. “That’s where I’m most comfortable, so that was a lot of fun.”

Once again, the Bluejays failed to take the next step, losing in the post-season tournament.

Loewen’s junior year was a year of contrast. She experienced the joy of a third conference championship, but also battled a nagging leg injury.

In the process, Loewen said she learned valuable lessons-about herself and her teammates.

“It was hard being hurt, but it was still exciting because we had such good freshmen who came and stepped in,” she said. “We still managed to win the conference and in the process, I learned how supportive the girls were of me and how much they cared for me as a person.

“They were always there when I was struggling with not being able to play.”

Defeating Kansas Wesleyan in the post-season tournament punched the team’s ticket for regionals, but Loewen played a minimal role in that experience.

“I got to play a little bit here and there, but I think that was mostly for the emotional part of it,” she said. “But I played the first part of the season last year and I was at practice every day, so I really felt like I was still a part of the team.”

Although Tabor lost in the first round, the standard was set for future teams.

Heading into this season, Tabor was projected to finish second in the conference. Loewen, the lone senior, was called upon to be a team leader.

After drifting through the early portion of the conference schedule with consecutive losses to Ottawa and Friends, Tabor reeled off 13 straight wins.

Although Tabor suffered a disappointing loss at Southwestern on Thursday night and ended the season tied with Ottawa at 15-3, the Bluejays’ co-championship was their fourth straight title.

“It’s almost expected of us to win, but it was more exciting for me now because I’m so close to these girls,” Loewen said. “I think they really look up to me and I love playing with all of them.

“It’s kind of like this is ‘my team’ this year,” she added. “It’s really a lot of fun because I like them all so much and they all work so hard that I never have to get on any of them about hustling or anything like that.”

Ratzlaff said Loewen embraced her role as a leader.

“This year especially, I’ve been able to enjoy Erin’s leadership that I haven’t been able to enjoy in the previous three years because she’s always had strong leaders above her,” she said.

“The women all feel connected to Erin-they trust her, they admire her and they respect her, and I think she’s earned that.”

Defending its championship has made Tabor a better team, Loewen said.

“We’re targeted now, but that makes us better because everyone plays their best game against us-and that’s good,” she said. “We just have to play our own game because player for player in the conference, I feel like we outmatch any other team.

“If we just play to our abilities and come together, we should be headed back to regionals. Then we need to step it up a notch.”

While the cast of characters has changed, one thing that hasn’t changed in four years of Bluejay volleyball.

“I think this year’s team has more raw talent than we did three years ago,” Loewen said. “But the thing that’s stayed consistent over the past four years is that all the women are so passionate about volleyball.

“That’s the reason we won four titles,” she added.

Loewen said she would recommend Tabor to others.

“The best thing is that it’s a Christ-centered college,” she said. “Another great thing here is playing in front of our crowd.

“I had never played in front of many people before because in high school it was mainly just parents who watched us,” she said. “I love how loud and excited our crowd gets and how important volleyball is on this campus.”

With the guarantee of just one more home match left, Loewen realizes her career is nearing an end.

“These four years have really gone by fast,” she said. “I’ve thought about the fact that everyone will be back next year except me-but I’m excited for them because they’re only losing me and my shoes are already filled.

“We have incredible players on this team that don’t get a chance to play so they’ll be fine without me.”

Ratzlaff said it’s difficult to think of Tabor volleyball without thinking of Erin Loewen.

“It will be hard to play without Erin because I’ve become so accustomed to having her here,” she said. “It’ll be hard to not have her here with us.”

Majoring in elementary physical education, Loewen hopes to land a teaching job that includes a coaching opportunity.

“I’ll graduate this spring and I’ll go wherever I can get a job,” she said. “Eventually, I also want to get a master’s degree in adaptive physical education.”

Whether the Bluejays can win the tournament this week remains to be seen, but Loewen said she’ll still be able to look back with pride on the team’s accomplishments.

“I know I don’t have four titles as an individual, but the teams I was on have four straight titles,” she said. “I just happened to be a part of all four of those teams.”

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