Without any seniors, Belmont’s six juniors were forced to morph into senior leaders sooner than expected.
The maturation wasn’t happening fast enough. Not for volleyball coach Deane Webb, at least.
After a surprising five-set loss to Tennessee-Martin on Oct. 13, the Bruins were 8-14 and Webb feared the season was slipping away. So he challenged – and called out – his juniors in front of the entire team.
“He just laid it on us and we deserved to hear it,” opposite hitter Jen Myer said. “We just knew we had to step up after that. It put the pressure on us, which I think was a good thing. It was needed.”
Added libero Jamie Lundstrom: “We got put in our place. We flipped that switch and from then on it has been pretty much smooth sailing.”
The tough words resonated as Belmont won 10 of its next 11 matches and, last weekend, made history.
The Bruins stunned No. 1 seed and host Morehead State – which held a nation-best 24-match win streak – with a four-set victory in the Ohio Valley Conference championship.
The tournament crown was the first OVC title for Belmont in any sport since it joined the league in July. The Bruins (18-15) also earned an automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. The 64-team field will be announced Sunday and play begins next Thursday.
“It is a great win for our program,” Webb said. “We did put it on our radar, the opportunity to be first OVC champion from Belmont. We never wish poorly on any of our other programs. I certainly hoped women’s soccer was going to beat us to it ... [but] we’re a pretty a competitive group and wanted to have that opportunity. I’m really proud of our girls for making that happen.”
Such a feat looked improbable two months ago.
At first, the Bruins struggled to find an identity and mirror the 2011 team, which won 21 matches and a share of the Atlantic Sun Conference regular-season championship.
Half of their six starters suffered early season injuries and a young team – six freshmen and four sophomores – was overwhelmed against rigorous non-conference competition. The Bruins lost seven straight and began the season 1-7.
As conference play commenced, Belmont began to turn a corner – or so the Bruins thought. Back-to-back losses, including the five-set defeat against UT-Martin, didn’t sit well with Webb.
“We just challenged [the juniors] to be better leaders,” Webb said. “They really changed how they led. They changed how accountable they were holding people around them. The last half of the season they’ve done great.”
Behind the leadership of junior co-captains Allison McCoy and Hannah Miranda, along with Myer and Lundstrom, the Bruins turned their season around.
Citing better team chemistry and trust, Belmont eased up and finished second in the OVC West.
The only loss in the 11-match stretch was to Morehead State, which defeated the Bruins twice this season. Belmont finally gained revenge in the championship match.
The Eagles, however, stormed out to a decisive 25-13 win in game one and appeared set to capture their second straight OVC tournament crown. But the junior-led Bruins wouldn’t let that happen. With 16 kills and 10 blocks from McCoy, who was named the tournament MVP, Belmont regained its composure and won three straight games.
“We just wanted to prove to ourselves we could beat them,” Lundstrom said. “In this match we had a sense of calm. We just came together and won.”
Now, the youthful Bruins head into uncharted territory.
Belmont has been in the NCAA Tournament twice, with the last trip in 2008, when these juniors were high school juniors.
The Bruins expect to get an early taste of the postseason atmosphere on Friday when they travel to No. 9 Louisville as part of the Louisville-OVC Challenge, which annually pits the OVC champ against the Cardinals for an NCAA Tournament tuneup. Webb hopes this primer serves as an opportunity to get the jitters and wide eyes out of the way.
After feeling the heat for the last two months, the Bruins believe lowered outside expectations will suit them just fine.
“With the NCAA Tournament, we have no pressure on us,” Lundstrom said. “All we have to do is play volleyball. We have no pressure to win. I think it is going to be fun just to play volleyball.”