The Wheeling Jesuit volleyball squad finds itself in familiar territory once again. For the eighth year in a row, the Cardinals swept their regular season and tournament titles, readying themselves for yet another deep NCAA tournament run.
This year, they do it as defending national champions for the first time in their program’s history.
“There definitely is a lot more pressure, but there is also that sense of hope,” senior middle blocker Haley Kindall said. “We’re there. We’re at the top level, playing at that level against the top teams. I know before we felt that we always had to prove ourselves and show who we are, but now, I think people respect us and have a sense of who we are. It’s better to go into this tournament knowing that we are one of those top-level teams that has a real shot at winning the national championship this year.”
Kindall is one of six seniors returning from the 2015 national championship team. Together, these seniors have advanced through three straight regional championships and have been amongst the final eight teams each of the first three seasons of their WJU career.
“It’s the best thing I could have ever had,” Kindall said. “I have five other girls that have been with me for four years. We know each other so well. We expect so highly of each other, that I think it really helps our team move forward and be the best that we can be.”
Kindall has a certain uniqueness to her, not just in her exemplary play and leadership, but in her approach to the game. Take the way she prepares for each match, for example. You will be hard-pressed to find another volleyball player in DII doing handstands before a match.
“It’s part of my pregame ritual,” Kindall said. “Handstands. They get the whole body going. I didn’t do it in high school but definitely last year and the year before that. People know to leave me alone when I’m doing them.”
She is also one of the most decorated volleyball players in WJU history, taking home multiple All-American and conference honors over the past four seasons. Most recently, Kindall took home her first Mountain East Conference Player of the Year honors after leading the MEC in hitting percentage and placing fourth with a WJU-best 3.72 points per set. Days later, she was named the Division II Conference Commissioners Association Atlantic Region Player of the Year.
“I don’t really care for awards as bad as that may sound,” Kindall said. “A national championship feels so much better winning. It is nice to get that appreciation, but when it comes down to it, I couldn’t do that without my setter or my defense. It’s an all-around team program. This is a team award.”
Nothing shows that all-around team effort more than WJU’s nation’s best 1,814 assists. They also lead the nation in team kills (1,897) while finishing in DII’s top five in hitting percentage. While Kindall and the seniors were responsible for leading the charge, new blood also helped WJU rise to the top, like MEC Freshman of the Year Breanna Kramer, who finished second on the team in both points per set and kills.
The Cardinals started their title defense by sweeping through the University of West Florida Tournament, going 4-0 to start the season, taking down two nationally-ranked opponents along the way. They won the first two matches of the Colorado Premier Tournament before dropping consecutive matches to nationally-ranked Concordia-St. Paul and Angelo State.
That left a bad taste in mouths of the defending champions. They would lose just two sets in their next 16 matches, winning eight consecutive matches in 3-0 shutout fashion. They finished the season nearly untouchable on a 32-game winning streak.
“It was a turning point,” Kindall said. “It was a chance for the team to realize that we weren’t the same team as we were last year. I think that was hard for some of the returners to understand, especially myself. We have a lot of new freshmen. It’s a different dynamic. Once we got past that turn, we were able to really come together and understand where we needed to go from there.”Helping them gain that understanding is MEC Head Coach of the Year Christy Benner. She is joined on the bench by her top assistant — and husband — Matt Benner. Together, they have built the Cardinals into a national powerhouse, first in the WVIAC and now the MEC, having not lost a conference match in the four years of the MEC’s young existence.
“They are the best coaches in the entire world,” Kindall said. “We always joke around. Last year, the thing was calling them ‘mom and dad.’ It really is a family environment. They have our best interests in mind at all times. That obviously helps the program, but helps us grow outside of the court as well. Their heart for the game is incredible, and it has rubbed off on all of us.”
Now, the defending champions prepare for the next leg of their journey, a first-round matchup against Shaw University as the No. 1 seed in the Atlantic Region. For Kindall and her fellow seniors, it will be the last leg of a remarkable four-year run. Next season’s Cardinals will see a vastly different roster, but Kindall hopes she and her teammates have blazed a path for the future.
“I know the six of us have had the time of our lives,” Kindall said. “I want them to enjoy volleyball as much as our six have. I want them to keep the program at this high level of play and understand where they came from and even know the alumni before us. I hope they can carry that through from generation to generation.”