By Jim O'Hara
KISSIMMEE, Fla. - A new conference within a new affiliation, new foes, and new road trips – everything about the season was one that was packed with a lot of firsts for the Shorter volleyball team.
And it's far from over.
For the first time ever the Lady Hawks will be playing for a national title when they head to Kissimmee, Fla., as the nation's No. 2 seed in their first appearance at the National Christian College Athletic Association National Volleyball Tournament.
"This is all new to us," Shorter head coach Jon Moseley said as the Lady Hawks, now 24-5 overall after winning the NCCAA South Region championship, find themselves playing late into the year and at a time when they are also in the midst of final exams.
"We never practiced or played past Thanksgiving until this year," the coach said, "so there are things that need to be done that we haven't had to do before."
That, however, is something the Lady Hawks are more than familiar with having more than met the challenges of becoming an NCAA Division II program that competed in the Gulf South Conference, where despite not being eligible to play in the GSC postseason tournament because of the university's probationary status Shorter stunned the conference with an impressive second-place finish.
"It's going to be fun seeing teams we've never seen before," Moseley said about what the Lady Hawks will face in the NCCAA national tourney, "and I think our schedule this year prepared us for that. It definitely helps to play a lot of good teams."
What is certain is that what the Lady Hawks learned this fall will make them a team to watch out for when the 10-team field that is broken into two pools opens play on Thursday at the Kissimmee Civic Center.
Fresh from getting a welcomed four-day break over the Thanksgiving holiday, the Lady Hawks headed to Florida on Tuesday and got a look at the arena they will be playing in during a workout Wednesday.
Shorter takes the national stage for the first time at noon on Thursday for the first of four Pool B matches, squaring off against the McMurry War Hawks (20-9) of Abilene, Texas and winners of the NCCAA Central Region championship. Like Shorter, McMurry is in its second year of transition to the NCAA Division II ranks and is a member of the Heartland Conference.
The Lady Hawks return to the Civic Center later that day for a 6:30 p.m. showdown with the Bethel Pilots of Mishawaka, Ind., an NAIA program that has a 23-13 slate and received an at-large bid to the nationals.
The tournament resumes on Friday with two more pool games for the Lady Hawks, the first at 10 a.m. against the Malone Pioneers (22-10) of Canton, Ohio, the NCCAA East Region champions and also in the midst of becoming a Division II team; and the final pool test starting at 4 p.m. with a meeting against the Trinity Christian College Trolls (30-8) of Palos Heights, Ill., an NAIA team that won the NCCAA North Central Region.
Top-seeded Fresno Pacific, another former NAIA member that is currently going through the process of becoming an NCAA DII school, heads up the Pool A list not only having won the NCCAA West Region title but is ranked No. 10 in the Division II national poll. Campbellsville, Oakland City, Grace College and Southern Wesleyan round out the field.
The top two teams after pool play is completed advance to the semifinals and championship rounds that will begin Saturday.
"I really don't know much about the teams," said Moseley. "They're from different regions and didn't play anybody we played. I do know that some of the teams have strong volleyball traditions."
"From what I gather, it looks like (McMurry has) a good team," he pointed out. "I think everybody in our pool is good and that's the way it should be in a national tournament. In our pool, it comes down to whoever is playing well."
Not having much information on the upcoming foes, Moseley and the Lady Hawks have not left any stone unturned in getting some idea of whom they'll play.
"These days there's a lot of available, videos we can see on-line," said Moseley," and throughout the season, they've been checking out the other teams on their own and I'm sure this week they're taking the initiative to learn about who we are playing."
It's a good bet that the teams Shorter will play and doing the same thing, and what they will find out is that the Lady Hawks are at the top of their game.
Shorter brings a remarkable 11-game win streak to the tournament, one that includes a victory over NAIA power and four-time national champion Lee and in the NCCAA South Region, the Lady Hawks served postseason notice with straight-set decisions against Pensacola Christian and Southern Wesleyan.
Jasmine Crook became the power player against Wesleyan with 15 kills and Graham added 10 kills of her own, and Corder handed out 32 assists to add to her career-record total.
Corder wound up being named the region's Player of the Year, while Whitman, Welch, Crook and Corder were All-Region first team selections.
"This is great for the team, especially the seniors," Moseley, who was named the NCCAA Region Coach of the Year, said about the opportunity that awaits the Lady Hawks. "They're excited about playing for a national championship and truthfully I don't want to let them go."
"We've been playing well for quite a while now," he said, "and they're mature enough to know that they'll play well down there."