The following was written by Paul Morgan, a retired sports writer for the Kalamazoo Gazette who has covered volleyball for nearly 30 years.
As any college coach knows, recruiting is an inexact science.
Coaches will go after a number of players, hoping to convince one or two of them to come to that school and propel it to a championship.
In 1988, Kalamazoo College volleyball coach Jeanne Hess got pretty much everyone she wanted. In the tough MIAA, Hess needed all of them if the Hornets were to overtake perennial powerhouses Calvin and Hope.
She got those recruits, and in 1991, the team’s hard work paid off with a 36-4 overall record, MIAA championship at 12-0, and a berth in the NCAA Division III postseason tournament.
‘’The stars were aligned that year,’’ Hess said on the 20th anniversary of the Hornets’ most successful season in school history which will be inducted into Kalamazoo College’s Hall of Fame in October. ‘’They all came together at a certain point for a certain reason.
‘’Because they really reveled in the success, they set a standard for teams to follow.’’
At the time, the Hornets were trying to follow the success of other volleyball teams in the MIAA.
‘’Calvin has led the way in the MIAA and actually received a bid into the NCAA tournament that season,’’ Hess says.
‘’Calvin is a great competitor and has made us better. The MIAA is a very good conference in which to play.’’
Hess felt that the 1991 team could be a national contender. The seniors (married names are in parenthesis) on the team were Mei Zhang (Juknelis), Barbie Oelslager (Hoag), Rocky Cibor (Cameron), Gretchen Newell (Behimer) and Karen Willms (Murray). The lone junior was Gretchen Crumbaugh. The sophomores were Nikki Frost (Merchant), Amy Dumanois (Walker) and Amy Schmidt. The freshmen were Jen West (Jawahir), Christina Garry (Ransbottom) and Mary Alice Siwajek (Klahorst).
Willms, Cibor and Oelslager were the four-year seniors while Zhang transferred to Kalamazoo in 1990 from Western Michigan University with two years of eligibility remaining and Newell came for her senior year after playing and winning the National Small Colleges Athletic Association national title at Nazareth College.
‘’From day one, I thought it would be a team like this,’’ Hess says. ‘’In 1990 we ended very strong and we only added Gretchen, Christina and Nikki and I thought they could produce.’’
The season got off to a rocky start, though, when the Hornets lost their first match of the season to Madonna, a larger school from the NAIA.
‘’We lost in five games and the fifth-game score was 17-15,’’ Hess says. ‘’The loss told us it was time to wake up.’’
The Hornets did wake up. In the regular season, they would lose to just Spring Arbor College and Aquinas College, but would avenge both of those defeats. They would beat Calvin twice, the first match being 10-15, 15-13, 15-8, 15-6, and the second one a nailbiter at 12-15, 9-15, 15-4, 15-9, 15-12.
In the NCAA match, the Hornets had another nailbiter, but couldn’t overcome Wisconsin-Oshkosh, 8-15, 16-14, 15-11, 9-15, 16-14.
Zhang led the team in hitting with a gaudy .461 average, second in the nation. Cibor, the team’s setter, was 10th nationally with 10 assists per game. Wilms hit .301 and helped Kalamazoo to be the top hitting team in the nation at .318.
‘’Before Mei came, these kids came in 1988, working hard together,’’ Hess says. ‘’They were already great, but Mei coming here, I believe, gave them permission to go out and grab what they wanted.’’
What they wanted first of all was to win a title in one of the toughest conferences in the nation.
And they did.