WATERTOWN, Wis. -- At 3 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 19, the Sabercats stepped out of the club volleyball scene and onto the NCAA DIII varsity stage for the very first time.
In the 68-day competitive season, they faced 17 established DIII programs, top-5 DIII team in Benedictine University, and a weather-threatened trip to the East Coast. Each of these brought unprecedented challenges to this team, who made their first varsity season all about improvement and connecting with opponents.
They did just that.
GRIT, DETERMINATION, and TESTIMONY
On the first day of the season, the Sabercats marked their arrival to the varsity stage with a captivating 3-2 win inside the John Buuck Fieldhouse at Concordia-Wisconsin. The win was part of a 1-1 showing at the CUW Triangular, as the Sabercats were given a taste of victory in their first shot at DIII opponents. Just 2 weekends later, the Sabercats got their second win. Same school, same place. And this time, Maranatha swept the Falcons away in straight sets, posting 35 kills - their highest mark of the season in a 3-set match. All things considered, the first-year team was riding high.
It was then that a rigid first-year schedule hit. After the Sabercats' second win of the season on February 2, the Sabercats faced a winless stretch of 16 matches in 46 days. Midwest powerhouse programs like Loras, North Central, Marian, and Aurora were some of the main features of a formidable mid-season slate for a young and relatively inexperienced Sabercats team.
In that stretch of 16 matches, the Sabercats didn't win a single set - that right there could be reason enough to throw in the towel for some. But if you watched this team play through that stretch, you wouldn't say that they were in a slump. And actually, you might have pinned them as an above .500 team because of their demeanor. Coach Torey Rosen would tell you that in spite of the losses on the scoreboard, this team was anything but defeated. They had a mature and realistic approach to the season.
You were looking at a model of grit and determination.
"Going into the season, [the players] knew each match was going to be a difficult test," said Rosen after the season. "Their attitude despite only achieving a few wins has been one of determination and perseverance which they committed to at a greater capacity than I ever anticipated."
What sparked the "never say 'die'" attitude of this team? A focus on what they could control; not just on the outcome of winning a given match. The approach was effective. As the players maintained a high standard in terms of effort, their mentality improved and so did their skill.
"We emphasized at the beginning of the year that attitude and effort are the things we can control," Rosen said. "Most times, we knew we would be out-performed based on skills but we knew we could give teams a good game if we gave our absolute best effort on the court. At the start of the season, we struggled running a few drills as the players were still learning some of the basics. By the end of the season, it was so enjoyable to watch them compete in practice in high-energy situations."
And the effort paid off in terms of their play, as the team snapped out of the losing streak with a pinpoint performance against New Jersey City and a dramatic comeback win over Widener. Throughout the season, the Sabercats improved in points per set, climbing from an 8-match streak of just 8.4 per set in the middle of the season to over 12 by the end of it.
The best part about it? Rosen and the guys used the contest on the court to connect with and share Christ to opponents off the court.
"Before each match towards the end of the season, Torey would just ask the other coach, 'Hey, do you mind if we pray with you afterward?'," said Regina DeLozier, the assistant coach of the team. "Most teams agreed, and because of that gesture, our guys were able to connect with opposing players in a way that they otherwise wouldn't. It was really great to see."
The team's bold testimony earned them a positive reputation.
"Most of the time, we all went to talk to the other team after the match just to make a connection, and other times we prayed with their entire team," Rosen said. "Based on the conversations and some comments sent [to us] via email and social media later, we feel we have earned [their] respect. Ultimately, we're glad that we were able to make connections that allow us to further our use of volleyball as a platform to show Christ. We wanted to leave a lasting impression of Christ, Maranatha, and our team. "
"Our team has definitely become a family," Rosen said. "The players on the team created a solid foundational culture of having a positive attitude and working hard in every moment. They dealt with situations as teammates that were 'iron sharpening iron'. This culture of accountability is one we would like to cultivate moving forward."
With this being an inaugural season, you could technically say that the following team-high marks are also program records:
- Kills: Derek Wallis, 267
- Assists: Tim Kile, 339
- Aces: Joel Smith, 18
- Digs: Joel Depue, 285
- Blocks: Andrew Carpenter, 71
- Points: Derek Wallis, 294.0
Derek Wallis was the primary threat on offense for the Sabercats, as it was a regular sight to see his name with the high mark in kills in the box score. The junior from Missouri led Maranatha with 267 kills and 294.0 points on the season and contributed 172 digs and 30 blocks for good measure. He recorded double-digit kills in 10 matches and slammed down a career-high 20 kills against Adrian on March 3 at the North Central Triangular.
Andrew Carpenter used every bit of his 6-foot-4-inch frame, as he led the team with 71 blocks on the year. Carpenter's 113-kill, 161.5-point season made him a mainstay to the MBU rotation. Devon Steuerwald was another key part of the equation for MBU. Steuerwald peaked late, as he averaged over 7 kills per match over the last 6 matches - that was 2 kills more than his previous high for a single match.
Joel Depue was the libero, and he had a scrappy 285 digs by the end of the season. That mark was the highest for MBU. Depue's defensive passing made things that much easier for Tim Kile, who led Maranatha with 339 assists on the year.
There's no debate. This team has laid the groundwork for future success. In Rosen's mind, what the team did this season will contribute to the program's success down the road.
"I believe we have been able to create relationships with other teams that will allow us to continue to schedule with them," Rosen said. "Also, I believe we have increased excitement for the growth of men’s volleyball. Through our boys' clinic, we were able to teach volleyball skills as well as allow them to see the potential for their growth in playing volleyball.
"The players came together for so many memories. I think this speaks for itself for how great of attitudes the team had throughout the season and their desire to give the program a strong start to its NCAA era."
To learn more about the team, visit their team page by clicking here.