The Tabor College volleyball team enters 2017 on the heels of an unprecedented season.
The Bluejays followed a 20-2 KCAC campaign by qualifying for postseason play for the first time in program history. Tabor secured an opening-round victory over Wayland Baptist to earn a spot to compete among a 32-team field in pool play in Sioux City, Iowa. Eliminated at the conclusion of pool play, the Bluejays ended the season with a record of 26-12.
If anything, coach Amy Ratzlaff, who returns for her 19th season, said the experience gave the Bluejays a better understanding of what it takes to compete at the national level.
“Now they understand, at the national level these are the things that we have to be better at, and they’re super motivated,” Ratzlaff said. “I would say it has probably pushed us forward faster than any other year because we have this expectation.”
Tabor will play without third-team NAIA All-American outside hitter Tena Loewen, who was KCAC Player of the Year and a first-team All-KCAC selection, and without KCAC honorable-mention middle blocker Miranda Leibold.
“We’ll just be a different team,” Ratzlaff said. “There’s never been a year where you ever replace anybody because girls are irreplaceable. It’s just coming up with the best team with personnel I have now.”
Tabor returns three of five All-KCAC honorees from a year ago.
Senior defensive specialist/libero Ali Jost as a first-team selection. A member of the 2017 preseason team, she ranked 14th nationally in digs (team-best 778) and 18th in digs per set (KCAC fourth-best 5.64).
“Ali is by far one of the best defenders I have ever seen in my life,” Ratzlaff said. “She is incredible. She’s a big reason for our success last year. She’ll be a big reason for our success this year.”
Ratzlaff added, “She has such good leadership and team chemistry. We just get the whole package with her.”
Senior outside hitter Amy Horner returns for her third season. A second-team All-KCAC pick last year, Horner ranked 24th nationally in kills (485).
“(Amy’s) game has gone to a whole new level this year,” Ratzlaff said. “She’s owning it this year. Her attitude is phenomenal. Her athleticism is phenomenal. She’s playing better than I’ve ever seen her play.”
Sophomore middle blocker Kendra Kroeker returns as a second-team All-KCAC pick. She garnered Co-Freshman of the Year honors a year ago and led the team in blocks (83).
“(Kendra’s) in really good shape,” Ratzlaff said. “She is smarter. She came in last year basically just hitting the ball as hard as she could no matter what. Now she has control with that heat, and that makes her really hard to defend.”
Tabor also returns two setters in senior Megan Voth, who led the team in assists (804), and junior Keeley Kroeker (707 assists).
“They’re both phenomenal players,” Ratzlaff said. “I feel like our offense runs smoothly, but they’re really good defenders, too.”
Senior defensive specialist/libero Haley Falk also returns. She tallied 214 digs last year.
“Haley’s one of a kind,” Ratzlaff said. “Her personality adds an aspect to our team that I’ve never had. She makes sure every day’s fun, and I love that about her. She’s an incredible defender.
“I think we potentially will get her in more of her comfort spot to defend this year.”
Ratzlaff spoke well of all her seniors, also including outside hitter Sydney Peitz, outside/opposite hitter Brooke Holloway and middle blocker/opposite Kim Hockley.
“They’re great players with great control,” she said. “They work hard, and so our leadership is a really special part of this team.”
Ratzlaff has added several newcomers, including Hesston College transfer Jessanna Nebel, a junior outside hitter.
“She’s an incredible athlete,” Ratzlaff said. “She can jump out of the gym. Between her and Amy, people will love to watch them fly, because they will fly. She’s learning our system and figuring all of that out.”
Jacey Guy, a senior outside hitter, comes to Tabor from Ottawa and will redshirt this year.
Ratzlaff spoke highly of her freshman class.
“I have never had a freshman group quite so amazing,” she said. “They blend, they work hard, they learn fast. They’re just working so hard.”
Melody Valencia, out of Peralta, N.M., adds depth at the setter position.
Olivia Duerksen from Goessel brings height to the middle blocking position.
Tabor was picked second to Ottawa in the 2017 KCAC Coaches’ preseason poll. Tabor’s only conference losses last year were to Ottawa—twice in the regular season and a five-set KCAC tournament championship defeat.
In early September, the Bluejays will participate in the Bellevue Tournament. Tabor will face two teams receiving votes nationally in Missouri Valley College and Oklahoma City University
In its season-opener Aug. 23, Tabor defeated Avila 3-1, a team Ratzlaff scheduled to get an early look at a future KCAC member school.
Also new, Tabor will participate in a midseason tournament in Hutchinson Oct. 13-14.
“Because we have so many teams in the conference, we don’t have enough play dates, so we took four conference dates and put them into a midseason tournament,” Ratzlaff said. “That’ll be a huge event.”
The KCAC tournament will be a three-day event in Hutchinson in November this year, designed to model the national tournament format and better prepare teams for that environment.
Ratzlaff welcomes the change.
“You play so much in those few days at the national tournament, I like that we’ll have to do the same thing for conference.”
But Ratzlaff is less concerned about nationals and more about enjoying the journey.
“Every day is just going to be really fun and really special with these girls,” she said. “If our focus stays in the right place, good things are going to happen at the end. There’s no reason to focus on the end.”
Tabor will open conference play Aug. 30 by hosting Bethel at 7 p.m.