As they entered the 1981 fall season, the student-athletes of the Juniata College women’s volleyball team had no idea that their squad would generate a spark that would remain lit for 30 years.
Under the instruction of former head coach Larry Bock and present head coach Heather Pavlik, Juniata has amassed a string of 329 victories against conference opponents, the longest such streak in Division III volleyball history.
“We simply always had better athletes, better teams, better coaches at an institution that attracted really, really good people,” said Bock, the all-time winningest volleyball coach in NCAA history. “There’s no one thing or one person that creates success. It was a very big effort over a very long time: trustees, presidents, admissions right down through the athletic department to the trainer and the strength coach.”
“Coach Bock and his assistant coaches created an environment where attitude was everything,” 1985 Juniata graduate Tracey DeBlase Huston said. “There was an expectation that we would work harder than any opponent and that we would meet every challenge we faced with enthusiasm and tenacity.”
Today, Huston is the Executive Director of Outreach Marketing, CRM, and Admission Services at Penn State.
Reflecting on his 34-season career at Juniata, Bock remembers a time when adding a win to the books was so emotional.
“Probably right at the beginning of the streak in 1981, that season’s MAC conference tournament,” Bock said. “We just had a real emotional tough win against the reigning power, which was at that time Western Maryland College, now McDaniel. That was a big hurdle.”
Since their last league loss in 1981, on Nov. 8 against Gettysburg, Juniata has totaled 291 Middle Atlantic Conference/Commonwealth Conference wins and 38 victories in the Landmark Conference.
“We had a lot of swagger for a bunch of young women from a small liberal arts college in central Pennsylvania. Our fans, the college, our families, and our coaches expected great things when our team took the court for every match,” Huston said. “The pressure was significant, but exhilarating for all of us because we loved the competition, we loved winning, and we never took any team for granted.”
Heather Pavlik took the reigns as head coach from her former mentor Bock on Jan. 19, 2011, when Bock was named Navy’s head women’s volleyball coach. Pavlik presents a unique perspective, since she is not only Juniata’s head coach, but was also a former player in the mid-90s. Pavlik is a three-time American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) first-team All-American and a member of the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball 25th Anniversary Team.
“I think during my era here at Juniata as a player was probably when the Juniata program took a step into national prominence and became a national power. Maybe matches during my career were a little bit more competitive,” Pavlik said.
With 30 years of consecutive conference wins under their belts, the recent teams have sometimes forgotten what it’s like to come from humble beginnings.
“I think the streak is [taken for granted a little] but I think that’s human nature,” Pavlik said.
According to Pavlik, “The key is to remind them to enjoy it, because I think sometimes when you are just expected to do something, you forget to smell the roses along the way.”
Pavlik makes it a point to stress the importance of every match to her players. Streaks, after all, are built one game at a time. Therefore, Pavlik believes victories in the past have nothing to do with upcoming matches; for the coaching staff, they are completely separate issues.
“We just never paid much attention to a streak of any kind. I’m not a counter, I don’t think Heather’s a counter,” Bock said. “We just know that the only important event coming up is the next one. I honestly don’t suspect that the teams during that time were paying a whole lot of attention to it.”
In Pavlik’s first year as head coach, she has undertaken a myriad of responsibilities: recruiting competitive people, giving them the best training possible, and exposing players to the best competition out there. Now, Pavlik must maintain every tradition that the Juniata women’s volleyball team has created, including this lengthy stretch of wins.
“The coaching staff at Juniata built a tradition of winning through discipline, commitment, and teamwork,” Huston said. “I think prospects want to be part of something really great and … with an invitation to play at Juniata, comes an enormous responsibility.”
The 2011 Juniata women’s volleyball team ended its league season with seven more conference wins to add to the long-standing stretch. It earned another NCAA tournament invite, where it advanced to the third round before falling.
“I think that for Larry and I, even when he was here, it’s just not something we thought about,” Pavlik said. “In the end, it’s a very nice story but does it change what we do here day-to-day? Absolutely not.”
Kelly O’Shea is a senior studying politics and economics, a student assistant in the Juniata Sports Information Office and a member of the Juniata field hockey team.