Saturday’s Dakota Wesleyan University volleyball NAIA tournament victory has been years in the making.
How long depends on who you ask?
For the program itself, it was 31 years dating back to 1990, the last time it played in a national tournament. In the nearly 50 years of DWU volleyball, going back to the program’s start in 1974 in the shadow of Title IX, it would probably be hard to imagine the program having a raucous, supportive atmosphere like it had on Saturday at the Corn Palace, with a paid attendance of 579 fans that felt like much more in a 3-1 win over a talented Saint Xavier team from the Chicago metro.
For coach Lindsay Wilber, a night like Saturday was eight years in the making. Her first season at the helm for DWU in 2014 was an eight-win season and 1-15 in conference play, the fourth-straight season with less than 10 victories.
A handful of her former players were on hand to watch the Tigers have success on Saturday, a group that Wilber credits for working hard to give the current DWU team a chance to be among the last, best 24 remaining teams in the country.
“Those first couple of years, those kids were all such good kids but we didn’t win very much,” Wilber said. “I always tell those kids that were here that they’re a part of what we’re doing now, too. They could have quit on me in those early years, and I would have been done. So it’s just awesome to see how this program has come along and have this culmination and be able to go to Sioux City. “
Prior to Wilber taking over the program, DWU had five winning seasons in its first 40 seasons as a program. The 2021 season is now Wilber’s fifth winning season in her eight campaigns on the sideline.
That effort has not been lost on Jon Hart, the university’s athletic director, who credited Wilber’s commitment to recruiting and making connections with the region’s top volleyball clubs to create pipelines into the program and building a focused vision for the program. She’s now the longest-tenured volleyball coach in DWU history.
“Lindsay has completely revitalized this program from the ground up, and when you play in this conference, that is extremely difficult to do,” Hart said last week. “She has built a winning tradition and identity for this program and she deserves a ton of credit. … We are so lucky to have her at DWU.”
For the current players of the team, they’re appreciative of their opportunity.
Ady Dwight is only in her second full season at DWU. But the 6-foot sophomore middle blocker leads DWU in kills and has broad shoulders for this Tigers’ team, stoic in the key moments for her teammates on Saturday until the final point was scored. Surrounded by her family and friends after the match, she was wiping away tears from her eyes.
“I never played in the state tournament in high school, so this is pretty special for me,” said the Langford, South Dakota product. “This is a great team that has just gotten better and better. … Coach Wilber has been building something special for a while and this group has put in the work and we’re grateful for this opportunity.”
Of the Tigers’ 16-member postseason roster, 11 of the players are South Dakota natives, with a team that has grown in support as the 24-9 season has gone on. Mitchell High School graduate Mackenzie Miller, a junior right-side hitter, noted that she’s seen new faces attending matches throughout the season, something the Tigers have enjoyed in developing new or renewed fans.
“Now that we’ve made a winning name for ourselves, I think that community support is only going to get stronger,” Miller said.
The Tigers will now climb into a deeper pool, with at least two more matches against Park University, of Missouri, and Grand View University, of Iowa, on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1 in Sioux City, Iowa. They are perennial national qualifiers, with Park claiming two national titles in the last eight years and Grand View only missing one NAIA tournament since 2011.
But DWU’s claim about playing in the toughest conference in the NAIA is no joke. All seven Great Plains Athletic Conference teams remain in contention and DWU won’t face any of those teams until the semifinals at the earliest, should DWU advance. Getting through GPAC play and beating those high-quality teams this season has been the surest sign of DWU being ready for national play to this point, and the Tigers have four of those wins over other GPAC national qualifiers this season, and playing against the top-10 five more times.
It’s exciting to see how far the Tigers might go. Until then, DWU volleyball’s special season remains “in the making” for a while longer.