NCAA volleyball: EMU's run to 'The Dance' has a certain ring to it
Just prior to the season, on campus in the Eastern Michigan locker room, Kimi Olson had a little surprise gift for her players.
OK, not real rings. Silicon rings, which, frankly, weren't worth much — but, then again, were worth everything, because of what they stood for.
"They signified the rings that we would get when won a conference championship," the fourth-year head coach said. "And this team put those on every single day, as a constant reminder.
"They wore them to class, they wore them to practice, just like I wear my wedding ring every single day."
Over the weekend, the Eagles finally got to throw them out.
"Because," said redshirt senior setter Mallory Rajewski, from Midland, "now we've got the big ones coming."
Eastern Michigan (21-13) won the program's first Mid-American Conference tournament, and in doing so is making its first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Eagles play Big Ten behemoth Illinois (28-3) at 8 p.m. Friday in Champaign, Ill.
The winner advances to Saturday's second round, to face either Louisville or Dayton, also at Illinois.
This is the culmination of a season of believing for the Eagles, who started the year with a week-long summer trip to Costa Rica, where they played a couple matches against a national team, but also bonded — there was surfing, zip-ling, trips to rain forests and hanging bridges and hot springs — all helping to plant the seeds of belief very early on.
Along, of course, with those rings — Olson's crafty motivational tool which, let's be honest, some young adults might've taken to viewing as just a bit silly. But not these Eagles.
"Everybody like bought into it, even the freshmen," said Rajewski, one half of one of the MAC's top setting duos, along with junior Riley Taylor from Indianapolis. "No one was really like, 'What's going on.' Everybody was like, 'OK, this is our year, we can do this.' Everybody really bought into the rights. We thought it was a great idea. Other athletes would ask about them, and we told them what it was about. It also was a great conversation starter, telling everybody that's our goal."
Eastern Michigan went 9-7 in the MAC during the regular season — good, but not great.
Then, as the season started anew, the Eagles got hot, and reeled off four consecutive victories — over No. 8 Kent State, No. 4 Buffalo, No. 1 Bowling Green and then No. 2 Miami (Ohio), the latter in a five-set thriller, to claim the championship.
That confirmed the date in the NCAAs, which Michigan (22-9) also is participant in, with a 4 p.m. match against Navy (23-8) in Pittsburgh. The winner will face Pittsburgh or Iona.
"Where we came from last year, and the parts we were bringing back, we thought we had a pretty good chance of doing it this year," Olson said. "We talked about doing this long before anyone else talked about us doing it. You've gotta believe it for it ever to happen. It starts with that step. In order to turn a culture, you've gotta start somewhere."
Eastern is led by Rajewski and Taylor, who combined to win MAC setter of the week four times. Offensively, senior outside Jordan Smith, from Iowa, had 445 kills, was first-team All-MAC, and made the All-MAC tournament team. Redshirt junior Cassie Haut, from Monroe, was second on the team with 386 kills and led the MAC with a .377 attack percentage, and was named MAC tournament MVP.
On defense, senior libero Alyssa LaFace, from Allen Park, finished second in the conference in digs and also was a four-time MAC defensive player of the week.
The Eastern volleyball program dates to 1976, while the NCAA Tournament dates to 1981.
Now, here it is in 2018, and the Eagles finally have their invitation to The Dance. And while the first-round task is daunting — Illinois took second in the Big Ten, a volleyball powerhouse — the Eagles all have believed from the beginning, so, heck, why stop now?
And even if the stay is short, well, they'll always have their rings.
The real ones, of course.
"This team put those on every single day — what we want to to do this year, it was a constant reminder," Olson said of the silicon rings, which were worn nearly everywhere, except during matches, as jewelry isn't allowed. "And now we get to replace them with some blingy conference championship rings."