Volleyball team is ready to move forward

Last season was a renaissance for the Oakland University volleyball team.

The squad, led by head coach Rob Beam, went 17-10 with a 10-8 record in Summit League play. Those 17 wins, including victories over longtime rivals Bowling Green and Eastern Michigan, were the most in the Division I era for Oakland.

Despite the great season the Grizzlies had, 2009 didn’t end the way the team had hoped.

Tied with UMKC for fourth in the conference, Oakland needed to win its final match of the season against the Kangaroos to make the Summit League Tournament for the first time.

It was a goal the team did not accomplish.

Up 2 sets to 1, UMKC went on to win the fourth set, 25-20, and the deciding fifth set, 15-12, stunning the Grizzly faithful in attendance at the O’Rena.

“To be so close to achieving something that no Oakland volleyball team has ever achieved, and to miss it by just a few points and two match opportunities, it was disappointing for all of us,” Beam said. “I think we’ve all worked really hard on improving every aspect of the program so that we can use that as a springboard to the next level of play.”

While the loss hurt at the time, it looks to serve as motivation for the 2010 season.

“Every single time we go into the weight room or step on the floor, we think about how it (the 2009 season) ended and we’ve talked about it a lot,” said junior Jenna Lange. “I think we’re ready to step on the floor, game one, with the mindset about how it felt to lose that last game.”

What made last season’s result even more impressive was the youth of the team.

Besides seniors Nikki Pawson and All-Summit League first teamer Adrienne Leone, the oldest player on Beam’s roster was junior Brittany Dunn. With a year of playing together and a solid 2010 recruiting class, the losses of Leone and Pawson have been somewhat tempered.

“It helps that the freshmen from last year know what they’re doing now, and we only have four new freshmen, so everyone is able to help the younger players out,” Dunn said. “Since we’ve all been together for a year, everything is clicking a lot faster than it was last year at the beginning.”

Oakland also has 12 returning players from last season’s record-setting squad, including All-Freshmen selections Meghan Bray and Brittany Holbrook. Ashley Nevelle, OU’s season record holder for assists, will return to her position of setter in 2010.

Another similarity to 2009 is where the Grizzlies are located in the rankings. After ending last season in fourth place, they have been picked to finish this season there, as seen in the Summit League preseason coaches’ poll.

“Since only the top four teams in our conference get to go to the (Summit League) tournament … there is nothing I want more, especially being a senior, than to make it to the tournament, which would be the first time,” added Dunn. “That’s everyone’s mindset, so I think we’ll be able to do it.”

Oakland officially opened its season Aug. 27 with an appearance in the Northern Illinois Invitational in Dekalb, Ill. The Grizzlies (1-3) lost their first three games of the invitational but finished with a 3-0 triumph over Chicago State.

On Sep. 3 and 4, the Grizzlies will take part in the upcoming Active Ankle Challenge, playing Robert Morris University, Tennessee State, and Ball State. The first home game for Oakland will be versus Eastern Michigan Sep. 7.

Beam sees plenty of potential in his young team and is hoping for continued improvement after last season’s resurgence. This year, OU appears as talented as ever.

“In my four seasons at Oakland, this is the deepest team we’ve had and that’s making preseason practice a ton of fun,” Beam said. “To watch them play, you kind of sit back and talk as coaches and go ‘wow.’ We have some good things we can work with and we’re certainly optimistic about the season and building on what we did last year.”