SIOUX CITY | Five years in a row, the Red Raiders of Northwestern College were a fixture at the NAIA Volleyball Championships, putting up 30 or more wins every season and reaching the national quarterfinals in back-to-back years.
Then, the last two seasons, modest records of 19-16 and 21-10 helped give Coach Kyle Van Den Bosch and his athletes a greater appreciation for what the program had accomplished.
And, made the Raiders ravenous for the success their predecessors had enjoyed.
Therein lies much of the motivation for a team that climbed back on top in the Great Plains Athletic Conference, posting a perfect 16-0 conference record and a 34-2 overall mark that sends them back to the national tournament this week in Sioux City ranked fifth in the nation.
How it all came together isn’t nearly so clear-cut, even though the Raiders were named pre-season co-favorites in the league along with Midland University, the eventual runner-up.
“We’ve got a new left side, two new middles, a new right side, a new setter, two new middle-backs and a new right-back,’’ reflected Van Den Bosch, detailing how six new faces in a 10-player rotation didn’t stop him from ushering Northwestern to a sixth national tournament in his nine years at the helm.
“It’s been fun watching them come together as a team,’’ said Van Den Bosch, whose father, Tom, spent 14 seasons (1997-2010) as the head coach at Dordt after building the foundation for an Iowa high school powerhouse at Hull Western Christian. “It all worked out. It’s just a great reward for a great season to be able to play in this tournament.’’
Kaitlin Floerchinger, a talented 6-1 junior from Treynor, Iowa, had a team-leading 309 kills last fall while also dishing out 386 assists, splitting her time between the front row while also serving as one of two setters in a 6-2 offense.
Floerchinger had spent her freshman year as the lone setter in a 5-1 attack, playing a position she’d never considered as a second-team Class 2A all-state middle hitter in 2010.
“(Van Den Bosch) asked me in May of my senior year (at Treynor) if I wanted to do a couple setting workouts that summer,’’ said Floerchinger. “I definitely didn’t think I was good enough to do it, but the coaches put in so much time with me, it was a very rewarding experience.’’
Not that Floerchinger (pronounced FLOSS-in-jur) has minded relinquishing the job to sophomore Brooke Fessler, a Northern Iowa transfer who was an all-stater on Pella High School teams coached by her father, Bob.
Fessler, indeed, has probably had the greatest impact of all the new regulars, averaging 10.5 assists per set to rank 14th in the nation (NAIA).
“She did a really good job of adjusting to what we needed,’’ said Floerchinger. “It’s kind of tough sometimes to find setters willing to adjust to the hitters. Everybody hits differently, people jumper higher, some are faster than others. She was catering to our needs.’’
“Brooke was just a good fit for us,’’ said Van Den Bosch. “She’s done a great job of leading this group, giving us chances to swing whether we’re passing it great or passing average. She’s always putting us in a position to be successful.’’
Floerchinger has stepped up her offense with 441 kills, but the team’s season leader is its only other holdover attacker, 5-11 sophomore Karlie Schut, who has 492 kills after ranking third on the team with 211 as a true freshman.
Schut was quite the recruiting windfall, coming out of a school -- Iowa Christian Academy in West Des Moines -- that has never had a state tournament team. That made her a bit of an unknown for many recruiters, even though her 5.81 kills per set two years ago led the state in all classes. Van Den Bosch had the inside track, anyway, because Schut’s parents are both Northwestern alumni.
The only other full-timers returning for the Raiders were libero Alexis Bart, a junior from Sheldon, and defensive specialist Claire Roesner, a senior from Orange City (MOC-Floyd Valley).
Still, there was considerable young talent waiting in the wings. That definitely included 6-1 middle hitter Kellie Goedken, a former Sheldon all-stater who has contributed 271 kills as a redshirt freshman. Meanwhile, the offense also added a pair of capable sophomores in 6-1 outside hitter Haley Chambers (Sioux Falls Roosevelt) and 6-foot middle Payton Samuelson (Gretna, Neb.), who have 275 and 136 kills, respectively.
Roesner and West Sioux grad Nicole Jacobs, another defensive specialist, are the only seniors in a rotation that also includes true freshman Jillian Estes from Sioux Center.
Bart leads the defense with 544 digs, playing all the rotations, while Floerchinger (340), Fessler (325) and Schut (288) also never leave the floor. Those four, of course, are also in the serving rotation along with Roesner and Estes. Floerchinger has a team-leading 85 aces, well ahead of Schut, second with 48.
“Kaitlin is one of the most versatile athletes we’ve had come through our program,’’ said Van Den Bosch, 264-71 at the Northwestern helm. “She just has a lot of different volleyball skills. This year, we needed her as a left-front and a middle-back. She’s handled the challenge really welland was rewarded by being named the GPAC Player of the Year. These positions have really fit her skill set really well.’’
With all the personnel changes, the Raiders were certainly not operating at peak efficiency when they opened their season Aug. 23 with a pair of home matches. They lost the second of these in five games to a Tabor (Kan.) team that was unranked and failed to reach the national tournament despite a 25-7 season that included a 16-2 co-championship finish in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference.
Northwestern responded to the first-day setback by winning 33 matches in a row before No. 6-ranked Midland avenged two regular season losses, both five-game battles, in another five-game thriller that decided the GPAC postseason tournament.
Midland, 34-3, and Northwestern are both top seeds in two of the six four-team pools that will engage in round-robin pool play action Tuesday through Thursday at the Tyson Events Center. The tournament field also includes two more GPAC teams in 15th-ranked Dordt and tournament host Briar Cliff.
Dordt was a winner in one of 12 on-campus matches that pared the postseason field from three dozen teams to the 24 that will play in Sioux City. Northwestern, Midland and Briar Cliff joined nine other teams awarded byes through that opening round of play.