July 24, 2014

Volleyballers exceeded everyone’s expectations

Jim Giacomazzi likes to dream big, but even he didn’t imagine the incredible things the Wayland Baptist Pioneer volleyball team accomplished this season.

“In my wildest dreams I didn’t envision what we did there at nationals,” Giacomazzi said. “I didn’t dream big enough.”

What the Pioneers did – after barely making it into the 36-team NAIA National Championships field – was advance all the way to the semifinals of the tournament in Sioux City, Iowa, finishing tied for third place and subsequently being rewarded with the highest ranking in program history: fourth in the nation.

“The whole team found a gear past overdrive during the tournament,” said Giacomazzi, who was named the Tachikara Championships Coach of the Year.

And, not only did the Pioneers show their stuff on the court in Sioux City, they proved their character off of it. The team helped out with a youth volleyball clinic and also spoke at a local elementary school, helping them earn the Champions of Character Sportsmanship Award.

“We just did our thing. We saw there was a need and the girls wanted to help,” Giacomazzi said. “It’s affirmation of the character I know our team has. They were very giving, very selfless.”

The coach said receiving the sportsmanship honor surprised him simply because, “I didn’t know there was such an award.”

That, however, likely didn’t surprise him more than the way his team performed on the court, peaking at just the right time to make their historic post-season run.

“Our thought was not only do we want to get to the tournament, we want to win matches,” Giacomazzi said.

That they did, winning six of them, in fact. That’s a fete no other team except national champion Texas-Brownsville can boast.

It started when 19th-ranked Wayland – the last of the eight at-large teams admitted to the field – won an opening-round national championship contest against Ottawa (Kan.) in what was the first-ever national championship event hosted by Wayland.

In Sioux City, the Pioneers opened pool play by avenging an early-season loss to No. 9 Vanguard (Calif.). Before taking the court against the Lions for the rematch, Giacomazzi said he felt positive about the outcome for a number of reasons.

“In the back of our minds we felt we should have won (against Vanguard in California),” he said. “And because we played them previously, we weren’t stepping into the unknown.”

Giacomazzi also felt having three battles against Sooner Athletic Conference rival Oklahoma Baptist, as well as the opening-round match with Ottawa, helped the Pioneers get rid of some anxiety on such a grand stage.

“We had worked out our jitters the week before,” he said.

After sweeping Vanguard, Wayland did the same thing a day later against fifth-ranked Northwestern (Iowa). That’s when people really started taking notice of the Pioneers, and even Giacomazzi was a bit caught off-guard.

“It was like, ‘Whoa, that seemed kind of easy,’” he said. “We had to re-evaluate things.”

After finishing off pool play unscathed by beating No. 23 Spring Hill (Ala.), Wayland was reseeded fifth of the remaining 12 teams, just missing a first-round bracket play bye. Instead, Wayland took out No. 15 Dordt (Iowa) in four to move into the quarterfinals against another team the Pioneers lost to in September in California, No. 16 The Master’s (Calif.), which was seeded fourth. Wayland again avenged its earlier loss, winning in four, to set up a date with top-ranked, undefeated UT-Brownsville in the semifinals.

After scoring only 11 points in the first set, Wayland responded by taking set No. 2, 25-23, marking only the seventh time all season the Ocelots had dropped a set. UT-Brownsville came back to win the next two, 25-16, 25-15, before going on to take the championship with a sweep over Biola (Calif.).

Giacomazzi called UT-Brownsville, a collection of highly-experienced players from six different countries, a team very worthy of its second national title in three years.

“There’s not too much we could have done differently,” Giacomazzi said. “They were just tremendous athletes. The hitting errors we had, some of them were great blocks.

“We were fortunate to find a weakness for a little bit by serving them short and blocking their attack lanes, but then they made adjustments. It just shows how resilient they were and how experienced they were.”

Still, Giacomazzi was anything but disappointed in Wayland’s run in the Pioneers’ first-ever national championships appearance.

“We played on all our cylinders and played really well,” he said. “Several of the girls had some epiphanies. It was like, ‘Oh, this is what you mean!’ Some of the technique issues we’d been discussing all year suddenly came to them. That could have been because we were playing back-to-back-to-back.”

Wayland, which led the NAIA in total blocks for the season, continued that trend in Sioux City.

“It was amazing how well we blocked there, and amazing how little the other teams blocked us,” said Giacomazzi, who also praised his team’s passing during the national tournament. “We were one of the best passing teams out there. It just clicked. We gave up the fewest number of aces over six matches and had the best ratio of not getting a reception error over a six-match period. Some of those teams we played had very good servers, but we did a good job of having quality passes.”

Giacomazzi said that resulted from a lot of hard work by the Pioneers, who put in the time every day in practice.

“Each of (the defensive players) probably touched 100 balls a day. I’m sure not another team in the country even came close to that.”

Giacomazzi, who in 1991 won an NCAA Division-II national championship while coaching at West Texas A&M, said this was one of his most satisfying seasons in his 15 years on the bench, and for reasons that go beyond the Pioneers’ success on the court.

“I had so much joy throughout the year working with this team. Some years you have a personality on your team that irritates you or irritates the rest of your team. We didn’t have that this year. We had a bunch of gals that I was happy to see. If we were on a stranded island, I could deal with every one of them.

“They gelled so well with each other. When somebody was a little down, somebody else would do something to make them laugh. It was a lot of fun.”

The team will lose three seniors in Natasha Giacomazzi, Claire Jacobsma and Grecia Rivera. All three will be missed, Coach Giacomazzi assured.

He said Jacobsma blossomed late in the season into the star player he saw all along.

“She really stepped up during the tournament,” Giacomazzi said. “She had some phenomenal matches.”

The coach said his daughter – who didn’t figure to play this season due to a groin injury but fought through the pain and showed up beginning with conference play – “helped solidify our defense a lot in the back row” and also was used some as a setter “to help Ashlyn (Westerman) get out of a funk. She helped us so much.”

Coach Giacomazzi couldn’t say enough about Rivera, who transferred to Wayland two years ago and ended her career here by being named an NAIA Third-Team All-American. Rivera and first-teamer Shahala Hawkins, a sophomore, were the first non-honorable mention all-Americans in program history. They along with sophomore Chelsey Driskill also were all-region.

“Grecia can read the court as well as anybody who has played in this program. She has all the shots that a person can have, can pass and plays great defense. She was always where the ball was,” Giacomazzi said. “Grecia is a dynamic person on the court and had some very timely words to say that helped the girls focus on what was really important. Her words of wisdom helped keep the team focused.

“I wish she could have been here for four years. She may only have size 8½ shoes, but they’re some big shoes to fill.”

Speaking of filling shoes, Giacomazzi has some recruits on the line that he believes will come in next season and help the Pioneers pick up right where they left off.

“We need one or two left-sides, a right-side and a defensive specialist,” he said, adding that he expects healthy competition between veterans and newcomers next season. “We have girls who are returning who want to fill in the gaps, then we’ll have new people coming in who want to be in that position, so you have a lot of competition. Whoever works the hardest gets to play.”

Now that Wayland has proven itself on a national stage, Giacomazzi expects the Pioneers – who were ranked the equivalent of 33rd in the preseason poll before finishing fourth – to start next season with a high poll position.

“Our No. 4 ranking is very deserving of the girls and the hard work they put in. I knew we were a top-10 team. Anna (OBU coach Anna Howle, who serves as the SAC’s rater) kept telling everybody that, but they didn’t believe us. Then we went out and proved we were.”

Giacomazzi looks for Wayland to start out 2014 “pretty close to a top-10 team.

“That will put us in a good position because you want to maintain that spot to get that automatic bid to the (national) tournament…kind of like a carrot in front of us,” he said. “It’s something tangible out there that we need to protect.”

Giacomazzi feels strongly that the Pioneers will field another solid team next season, but it will take lots more hard work and maybe even a little luck.

“At some point we can be as strong as we were” this season, he said. “When you throw a couple of new players into the mix, all of a sudden the team chemistry has changed. You have to find a balance so it doesn’t explode on you.”

If that happens, it’s likely no one will be surprised because, as proven by the 2013 Pioneers, Wayland volleyball has arrived!

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