This is uncharted territory for the Indiana Wesleyan University volleyball team.
The Wildcats have won 30 or more games in each of the last three seasons under the veteran senior leadership of legendary names like Yui Iwase (alumna ‘12), Kelsey Masuda (alumna ‘11) and Taryn Cocallas (alumna ‘10).
But this season’s roster holds a lot more youth than previous teams, with 11 underclassmen on the 15-player active squad.
Even with the team’s overwhelming lack of experience, IWU ended the regular season tied with senior-laden Bethel College for the Crossroads League title heading into the first round of the conference tournament Tuesday.
“With the team that we have, I feel privileged and grateful that we’re tying for co-champions in the conference,” said coach Candace Moats. “I saw the athleticism we had with the young group, but I didn’t quite know if the maturity would get us to that. So the accomplishment today to get there feels like it was all worth it.”
The young Wildcats ended the regular season with a 3-0 victory against Mt. Vernon Nazarene University to clinch a share of the league title and raise IWU’s record to 25-10.
While it would take a winning streak of historic proportions to earn a fourth consecutive 30-win campaign, Moats said she communicated a “nothing to lose” mindset to her team heading into the Crossroads League tournament.
“Let’s get ourselves to a place where we get experience at as high a level as we can so that when next year comes around you’re going to be familiar with this pathway,” Moats said. “Because we’re going to be back on this pathway again.”
The team isn’t solely focused on conditioning for future tournament runs, although Moats added this year’s young players will be “phenomenal” in the coming years. Another goal the 12th-year coach outlined was keeping the seniors on the court as long as possible.
Seniors like Rae Brandes.
The three-time Crossroads League Hitter of the Week and two-time Player of the Week finds herself in a major leadership position this year along with her twin sister Rebecca Brandes (sr) and Kristine Egebrecht (sr). For this group, that means producing on the court in each match.
“The leadership role this year is playing our best every game just because we’re going to be big key players, and we’re working hard to keep the team unity alive,” Rae said.
But Rae also said the transition is easier because of the immense underclassmen talent.
“It’s a testament to how good they truly are even just as freshmen and how much potential they have,” Rae said. “It’s been a little different because now we’re the seniors and it’s a different feeling. It’s big role, but with the underclassmen we have, it’s been good.”
As for the team producing in postseason play, Rae said the Wildcats are just now hitting their stride after snapping a four-game losing skid.
“You hit those dog days and it gets kind of slow for a little bit and I think we just got our energy and passion back full force and it’s a good time for it,” Rae said. “We’re a super athletic team so as long as we go all out the whole time and not make as many errors as the other team I think we’re going to have a lot of success.”
The Wildcats face Mt. Vernon in a rematch to open the Crossroads League Tournament Tuesday night at 7 p.m. in Luckey Arena.