Things were a lot different when Lauren Hackett took the court as a freshman for California Baptist. The year prior to her arrival, the Lancers had just finished the transition from the NAIA to Division II. Hackett was the start of a whole new era of CBU volleyball.
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She won PacWest freshman of the year that season. The Lancers finished 16-12, just touching the surface of what was to come.
Flash forward to 2017. Numerous All-American and All-PacWest accolades later, and Hackett is the leader of arguably the hottest team in DII volleyball. CBU heads into its weekend a perfect 9-0. Not only have they defeated five ranked teams, they have swept four of them.
“I don’t think we knew how far we could go,” Hackett said. “We’ve been mentioned in the rankings before, we’ve heard about all those teams in the midwest. But I don’t think we understood that could be us. Once we played Winona [State], it was kind of a weird realization that this could be us. This was a No. 4 team and we just beat them. And it felt normal.
“You can give yourself a gauge as to what kind of team you are when you do start knocking off some of these ranked teams. It’s not that we just feel that we are playing well, but realistically we are beating these teams. We are starting to think that a national title is on the horizon.”
The Lancers are off to the program's best start at 9-0, and earned their highest ranking in Week 2 of the AVCA poll, landing at No. 12. They have continued their upward trend, cracking the Top 10 at No. 8 in Week 3. Not only has Hackett grown, but the program has matured at a rapid pace.
“Our coach [Branden Higa], he’s been really unwavering in his heart, hard work and his passion for the team. This year it’s all kind of culminating in, at least to me, this one final run. It’s crazy the turnaround from NAIA to DII to DI, and to know that this is our last chance for that DII title, the pressure is definitely on.”
Higa has been able to get some outstanding recruits to come to the program, especially with a postseason appearance last season. Players like reigning PacWest Freshman of the Week Sydney Marks are welcomed additions to the growing program.
“As I’m going out a new generation is come in, it’s exciting,” Hackett said. “Sydney Marks has some raw talent that is only going to get better over the next four years. I really like seeing a freshman come in and do that. It’s hard without the experience or prior knowledge.”
The pieces were in place for Hackett's big final run. An elite senior leader, senior Sydney Kralj coming off her first All-American honors, and a talented young core. There was seemingly just one thing missing.
Well, maybe two.
Enter Madison and McKenna Witt. The twin sisters were fresh off a four-year career at the Univeristy of Arizona. There, the two were a formidable beach volleyball duo, but indoor volleyball is a completely different game.
"I was curious to see how we would transition back to indoor again," Madison Witt said. "What the little differences would be, how my body would respond. So far it’s been really easy. Our coaching staff is awesome and patient. And as you can see the team’s gelled really well together.”
It wasn't always easy for the Witt sisters. Sure, they were an inseperable duo that never played the game of volleyball without the other on the court. But once upon a time, the Witts were cut from their seventh-grade volleyball team.
“She’s kept tabs on us," Madison said of that seventh-grade coach. "It’s funny to see her and for her to laugh about it, and for us to tell young girls about it has been really cool.”
The obvious difference between beach and indoor volleyball is that indoor has many moving pieces on both sides of the net. That has been both exciting and challenging for the Witt twins.
“It’s easy to think that because you have more specialized places on the court that you can take yourself out of the play," McKenna Witt said. "In high school, I kind of fell victim to believing that, and you miss so much of what’s going on if you come in thinking that. Being involved in every single touch of the ball, even if you are not the one touching it, it’s helpful. But I love bringing this different style to indoor. I love going for the sharper angles or the deep corners of the court that get left out a lot.”
Adding to the challenges, McKenna battles a nodal ablation, essentially a super-fast heart rate on the court. It has led to two surgeries over the years, and while she feels fine, she does admit that there could be more. It hasn't changed her or her sister's drive one bit. While their athleticism and experience levels are off the charts, perhaps the biggest asset is their humbleness.
“It makes us really hard to deal with," head coach Branden Higa said. "From a volleyball standpoint, if you have two players who can really get it done on a pin, you’re going to be dangerous. We have three now, so it’s really hard to game plan around.
"They’re such high quality people. It would have been really easy for them to come in with their resume and act like, ‘I’ve been there, I’ve got this big reputation.’ They’ve been anything but that. It says everything about the type of character they have as people.”
McKenna and Madison have fit right into the culture that Higa and the Lancers have built on the Riverside campus. While their transition may not be yet complete, playing in much more intimate settings than that of Arizona, one thing has stood out to McKenna.
"The top of the DII can compete with DI any day.”
Nineteen consecutive sets victories. The best start and highest ranking in the program's DII volleyball history. Things are certainly clicking for the Lancers.
“It’s a pretty incredible accomplishment, but there’s so much more left in the season, that we’ve already put those aside," McKenna said. "We’re going to put in the work to get 19 more wins.”
Now a legitimate contender for the postseason, Cal Baptist looks to bigger aspirations as they prepare for the next leg of the journey. No matter where that takes them, Hackett will forever be remembered as a driving force behind the NCAA era, perhaps the player who took CBU to the next level.
“I really like the whole concept of servant leadership, especially in the Christian mindset that we try to live out as a team,” Hackett said. “Trying to serve and put the younger girls before us. Flipping that whole college hierarchy on its head and saying I’m here as a leader, but I’m here to serve you. I'd love for that to be my legacy here.”
“She’s played every match that she’s been here," Higa said of Hackett. "She was my first really big recruit. She’s a high-level player and a high-level person. When you talk about Cal Baptist and what we are trying to do with athletics, and academics and our university, she’s just a perfect fit. It’s been an amazing journey, I knew that good things were going to happen surrounding her and her career here. It’s been all true.”