Warriors return to national stage

Gabriela Cavalcante seen here digging a volleyball during practice for the Indian Hills Warriors at the Tom Arnold Net Center, stepped in for injured freshman Ana Nunes recording 20 kills, 18 digs, five aces and three blocks in three matches for the Warriors at the NJCAA Division I National Volleyball Tournament this past week.

OTTUMWA – What a difference a year can make.

Lyndsey Michel spent most of her seventh season at the helm of the Indian Hills volleyball program frustrated and searching for answers. The 2018 Warriors went from a team expecting to play in a national tournament to a team that barely finished with a winning record.

Michel’s eighth season was spent marveling at times as to the skill and determination of the Warriors, many of whom were part of last year’s challenging campaign. Indian Hills went from 18-16 and one win short of a national tournament bid to 36-5 this season with a top 12 finish in IHCC’s first trip to nationals since 2005.

“I wouldn’t say it was worth it to go through the struggles of last year. That’s a season that really hurt my heart,” Michel said. “I feel like there was success there. There’s no reason our freshmen couldn’t have been the sophomores that had discovered what it took this year to get to the national tournament. I do think that our sophomores have helped teach our freshmen what it takes to get back to the tournament next year.”

The IHCC men’s basketball team, Michel is hoping that year-end trips to Hutchinson, Kansas become a routine for the Warrior volleyball program. Indian Hills posted the second-best overall record in Michel’s eight seasons as head coach, producing the program’s best start to a season (16-0) before winning 17 straight matches to win the Midwest B district title and, finally, a ticket back to the national tournament.

“We’ve had really good groups and we’ve always had that Iowa Western hurdle in front of us in the postseason,” Michel said. “There are multiple times we could have easily fit right into the national tournament field, but I’m most proud of this group.”

Michel credits the focus on and off the court for helping the 2019 Warriors become just the third in program history to reach a national tournament. Not only did IHCC play with confidence on the court, they made life very easy on both Michel and assistant coach Carly Wehling during the course of the season in between matches.

“Carly and I both have babies at home, so when April and May rolled around, I didn’t know how either of us were going to survive,” Michel said. “The girls took care of their business in the classroom. They stayed out of trouble. I couldn’t have asked for a better group off the court. Athletically, anyone who came out to watch us play knows just how talented this group was.”

Led by Mariana Rodrigues, who finished with a program-record 1,090 career kills at IHCC, the sophomore class kept the focus on competing for a national title from the first practices back in early August to the first two days of the national tournament. The Warriors saw their bid for the program’s first NJCAA championship end in a heartbreaking five-set opening-round loss to Otero and a bid for a top-10 finish with a three-set season-ending loss to Odessa.

“You can see out there just how high the level of intensity is to compete for that title,” Michel said. “Watching the national semifinal matches on Friday night was unreal. There were hardly any errors. It was high intensity blocks, fast swings and a lot of fun to watch.

“It’s fun to be crowned as one of those top 12 teams. I think we belong there. We fit in with those teams. We showed that beating Hill in our second match out there.”

Rodrigues is one nine sophomores that depart from this year’s squad. Cassia Lemos, who finished just 21 assists shy of a single-season program record for IHCC as a freshman this year, figures to be a key piece of the puzzle as Michel looks to put together another national tournament hopeful in 2020 as will middle blocker Ana Nunes, outside hitter Bailea Yahnke and Courtney Jarrett who may very well take over for Amanda Toyota as IHCC’s libero.

“I think we’re looking at a similar postseason road, which makes returning to the national tournament a very attainable goal,” Michel said. “Recruiting is awfully hard for us, but when you get to a national tournament, it’s amazing the level of players you hear back from. It’s better when you’re better. People want to come play for you when they see you compete at that high level.”

Next fall will be here soon enough. Just like in 2005, the 2020 Indian Hills volleyball team will be looking for consecutive national tournament berths. Michel, however, will always hold a special place in her heart for the 2019 Warriors for the journey they helped take their coach on.

“The leadership of these sophomores was tremendous. I could go home at night and never had to worry about any of them getting in trouble,” Michel said. “It’s tough at a two-year school. It always feels like it’s over two weeks too soon. We couldn’t have played any more matches this season. There’s nothing to be sad about, but it’s over. Those sophomores are leaving and I’m incredibly sad to see them go. That’s the hardest part to get attached to these girls, have a lot of fun as a team and say goodbye so soon.”

Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.

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