By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
Any time a team manages a major turnaround in a short period of time, one succinct but hardly simple question bubbles to the surface: How?
For The Master’s University women’s volleyball team that query isn’t easy to answer, at least not in one fell swoop. It’s been a number of things: the maturation of a large junior class, the addition of a dynamic freshman, a confidence-building winning streak early on.
But, most notably, an improvement of 18 wins over last year comes down to individuals who have adapted and changed for the good of the team, even at great personal cost.
The four Mustangs who represented TMU in the Golden State Athletic Conference’s year-end awards Tuesday – Kayla Sims, Jane Cisar and Madi Fay as All-GSAC picks, and Allan Vince as Coach of the Year – all adapted in ways that propelled the program to its most wins since 1996 and its first-ever GSAC regular-season title.
You could start with Sims, a senior who entered the year with an eye on beating the program’s all-time assists mark. Her resume said it was attainable, if not a lock, and she wanted it.
But early on, it became clear that a 6-2 system, rather than a 5-1, would make the Mustangs (27-5) most dangerous offensively. Setter Sarah Park stepped into the rotation and played well. And Sims’ numbers took a hit. The record slipped out of reach. But Sims pressed on.
“She quickly got over it,” Cisar said. “Like, very quickly, within the first couple games, and she started focusing on what’s best for the team. She’s proven to be a consistent, fearless leader.”
Sims also asked Vince for the opportunity to play at opposite hitter when she wasn’t setting. She possessed the athleticism and the drive to shoulder the added responsibility. Vince liked the idea of having Sims’ leadership on the floor for six rotations, but he wasn’t going to give the position away. She had to earn it, and she did.
As of Tuesday, Sims had totaled 145 kills, fourth most on the team. She also moved into second place on TMU’s all-time assists list over the weekend, surpassing Christy Swagerty’s 2,642 from 2004-2007.
Many of Sims’ assists this year have gone the way of Cisar, who also made a position change.
The 6-foot-1 junior, who transferred to Master’s from NCAA Division 1 University of New Mexico before last season, played opposite hitter consistently for the first time in her career in 2017. It took time to adjust to the nuances of the position, but she found a rhythm near the end of the year.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Mustangs were looking to fill the void at middle blocker left by All-GSAC pick Morgan Koch. Cisar grew up playing in the middle and she possessed the kind of arm speed that makes opposing defenders quiver. Vince also liked the idea of moving Fay from outside to opposite where she could block an opponents’ most dynamic attacker.
He pushed the button. Some teams weren’t sure what hit them.
“Because I played opposite last year,” Cisar said, “I don’t think teams understood what it was like to have me in the middle. In the beginning, they struggled to pick up how I play in the middle.”
Teams didn’t fare much better once the scout got out.
Cisar ranks 12th nationally in hitting percentage (.353) and 29th in blocks per set (1.1).
She leads the Mustangs with 291 kills.
“She’s been consistent in every category,” Vince said. “She converted to middle blocker without complaint, and she continued to demand excellence from herself.”
Fay, a sophomore, made the aforementioned switch to opposite – where she has racked up 251 kills, second most for TMU – but she also underwent an overhaul to her arm swing and her mindset.
As a freshman, Fay displayed raw ability to beat opponents with power. This season, she’s also shown a deft ability to beat them with finesse, when need be.
“She’s learned how to incorporate tips and a short game,” Vince said. “Her vision has gotten better.”
Her swing, too, has become more mechanically sound, with less wasted movement.
Something that hasn’t changed?
“Her competitiveness is contagious,” Vince said.
That leaves Vince, who has taken a more hands-off approach during his fifth season at TMU, empowering his leaders to lead.
“Last year I tried to control things that I didn’t have control over,” Vince said. “That caused me to be more displeased when things didn’t happen the way I expected them to. This year, I’ve been able to release my exceptions and agenda and look to my athletes more and see how I can raise their potentials and create a positive learning environment.”
And a competitive one.
Vince tweaked practices this season so they centered on constant competition: whether that be 6-on-6 or in one-on-one games of pepper.
“We’re competing all the time,” Sims said. “I think that’s where we got our competitiveness from and our drive to win, our enthusiasm to play.”