Top-ranked Lakers head west for NCVFs
GVL/Courtesy Anna Tollefson
#11 Erika Witherspoon, #4 Becca Sylvain
The members of the high-flying Grand Valley State University women’s club volleyball team will not care to see the Mizuno Women’s Division II rankings when they depart from Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Tuesday.
GVSU, the No. 1 team in each of the last six national polls, will fly to Nevada this week with a legitimate shot at winning its first-ever national title in the NCVF National Championships at the Reno Convention Center in Reno, Nev.
“We may be ranked No. 1 in the nation, but it’s not ours to take,” sophomore defensive specialist Taylor Shomin said. “The pressure is on the people who have won it before. We’d prefer to be the underdog — we really don’t care.”
GVSU (29-3-3) may or may not be the top team when the tournament begins, however, after dropping its final match of the regular season to No. 10 Michigan State University on March 23.
Still, to the Lakers and head coach Anna Tollefson, Tuesday’s rankings will mean about as much as a complimentary bag of airline peanuts.
“Really, I’m not concerned with it,” Tollefson said. “It’s been fun to be there, but I’ve been saying all year rankings don’t matter.”
Beating some of the best teams in the nation has been a common theme for GVSU since its season began in October 2013; it has posted an 8-1-1 record against ranked opponents.
Sixth-year seniors Jamie Brandon and Erika Witherspoon lead a veteran Laker squad that certainly appears to be capable of making a deep run.
“There are a lot of plays they just inherently know the other person will be ready for,” Tollefson said. “They’re so comfortable around each other and it makes them dangerous offensively.
“Teams know them and their playing abilities well, and they’ve really solidified themselves as national threats.”
The duo opted to return this season after Witherspoon tore her Achilles tendon at nationals a year ago.
“We didn’t want to end it that way, so I decided to come back with her,” Brandon said. “I want to enjoy it since it will be our last one. We’re not taking it for granted.”
GVSU is a strong interior team that is usually at its best when its middles, Witherspoon and junior Hannah Chapla, dictate inside to set up hitters on the outside.
Tollefson said it’s a strong serving team loaded with top-to-bottom talent, but its competitive dynamic may be its biggest strength.
“Everyone is really talented, so we’re always fighting for spots,” Brandon said. “But we play really well as a team. We’re not selfish.”
GVSU will certainly be one of the favorites when the tournament begins along with Marquette University, the University of Wisconsin, Texas A&M University, Ohio State University and Virginia Tech University, who round out the top five teams in the national rankings.
As long as GVSU plays to its full potential, it figures to be one of the last teams standing.
“I always tell our girls there are only three things we need to do at nationals: prepare, execute and have fun,” Tollefson said.