There was a moment last season where Jennifer Bahner wondered if a national championship was ever going to be in the cards for the Cowley College volleyball team.
The fourth-year coach remembers that moment, very distinctly. Probably because it was right after the Tigers had just dropped the first game of the NJCAA Division II championship match to Oakland (Mich.) last November in Toledo, Ohio.
“Trust me, in the back of my mind I’m thinking, ‘Why can’t we just do this? We’ve been here so many times, why can’t we just push through and finish this?’ ” Bahner said. “And then we won three games in a row.”
Three games that elevated Cowley from a team that couldn’t quite do it – the Tigers finished as national runnerup in 2009 and third in 2010 – to the favorite to repeat as national champions. Cowley is ranked No. 1 in the NJCAA Division II preseason poll and opens the season this weekend at the Johnson County tournament in Overland Park. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 8 in Division II.
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“(2011) was such a great year and so many great things happened,” Bahner said. “But this year’s ranking is based off last year’s team, not what this group has done.”
The Tigers bring in seven newcomers, but they also bring back Jayhawk East MVP and All-American Martyna Gluchowicz, a 6-foot-2 right-side hitter from Krzyzanowice, Poland, who racked up 402 kills, 248 digs, 48 blocks and 34 aces as a freshman.
Gluchowicz already has a recruiting visit scheduled to Florida International – the state where she’s openly stated she wants to play in after she leaves Ark City.
“(Gluchowicz) is left-handed and hits on the right side, so that’s an added bonus,” Bahner said. “Kids aren’t used to playing against that. And on defense, with her size, she’s always challenging teams because she puts up a big block. She’s always a presence.”
Not that Gluchowicz will have to shoulder the weight of repeating as champs on her own. Libero/defensive specialist Georgina Perez returns after putting up 168 kills and 169 digs last season. Perez can also move to outside hitter if the need arises, which could make room for freshman defensive specialist McKenzie Hartzog, a Maize product.
“(Perez) just goes and makes plays all over the floor,” Bahner said. “She’s also very, very good in the back row.”
Middle hitter Cathy Hafenstine, a 5-11 Alma native, also returns. Hafenstine was a key contributor on last year’s team with 185 kills and 35 blocks.
“The hardest thing so far has just been showing the freshman how we practice and what’s expected,” Hafenstine said. “But I think they understand, they know we’re all focused on winning another national championship.”
Hafenstine also has the advantage of playing next to Gluchowicz, although with the fast tempo of matches, she rarely gets to enjoy the highlights.
“Martina is so quiet, but her power and her skills are overwhelming,” Hafenstine said. “Every time we give the ball to her, she does something great with it.”