Gazing into the future

By Chris Bils

All it takes is a few minutes with Ashland head volleyball coach Cass Dixon to realize she has lofty goals. She doesn’t even have to say what they are.

Watch her roam the sideline sometime. To the untrained eye, she seems a nervous wreck. Her heels seem likely to dig into the hardwood, which judging by the state of the old floor that was replaced this summer in Kates Gymnasium, they may have.

Look closer, and you’ll realize Dixon is just determined; determined to get the best out of her players, to leave nothing to chance, to demolish her opposition in preparation and intensity; determined to win. It’s a laser-focus that she carries with her every day, whether it’s a game day or a summer afternoon spent in her office, and it is most visible in her eyes.

Two years ago, her players might have been a little intimidated by those eyes. Dixon took over the program in 2011 and immediately began to restructure things. The Eagles, while eager to be successful, had a tough time adjusting.

A six-match losing streak in the middle of the season crippled their Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference championship hopes, and while they did make it to the GLIAC tournament semifinals, a final overall record of 15-13 fell far short of qualifying for an NCAA tournament berth.

Last season, the Eagles began to excel under Dixon’s gaze. A 13-2 start through the end of September laid the foundation for a historic season. By November, they were searching for their first NCAA tournament appearance since 2007, a spot they earned thanks in large part to a dramatic 3-2 victory at home over Northern Michigan in the GLIAC quarterfinals.

At the NCAA Midwest Regional Tournament at the University of Indianapolis, Ashland took a 3-2 victory over Northwood – which had just beaten them in the conference semis – before bowing out in another five-set match to Hillsdale.

A 24-9 overall record and NCAA tournament appearance helped put the program back on the map. It also made Dixon’s players just as hungry as their coach.

“It’s exciting for me that they’re able to go through that transformation,” Dixon said. “Of course, I want to win a national championship yesterday, but it takes time. I think we’re definitely heading in the right direction.”

The 2013 edition of AU volleyball will continue along the path that was forged last season without two key pieces from the 2012 team. Brittany Snider and Crystal Elliott were a dynamic duo that will be sorely missed. Snider was an honorable mention All-American who was fifth in the nation and led the GLIAC in kills with 551. Assisting on most of those kills was Elliott.

“We took our bruises in the spring trying to figure out the makeup of our team without those two because they had such dynamic personalities,” Dixon said. “We’re sorry to see them gone, but there’s a different makeup of the team now and I think it’ll surprise a lot of different people.”

The bulk of the team will be made up of five seniors and six incoming players, an interesting combination that Dixon hopes will foster the type of healthy competition that is so vital on successful teams.

Leading the charge are seniors Kate Eckels, Baley Bernthisel, Susie Jonas, Marci Zegarac and Megan Rohlfs, all five of whom started at one point or another last season. Also returning is lone junior Maureen Johnson, who at 6-foot, 2-inches will provide size in the middle, and sophomores Audrey Metzger, Shelly DeHenning and Shannon Murdock.

The lone transfer is sophomore Samantha Zuber, who came to Ashland by way of Campbell University in the spring. Incoming freshmen Katie Siefert, Casey Clark, Kara Cousins, Rylee Scott and Alli Cudworth round out the roster.

Dixon is excited to see what the group can accomplish once they return to campus. The team will have just four days of two-a-days before class starts, and then they must start preparing for the Ferris State Invitational, which starts Sept. 6.

“I think it’ll be a matter of how quickly our chemistry comes together,” she said.

The season gets off to a fast start with eight matches in four days over the first two weekends, the second weekend being the Quality Inn and Suites Ashland University Invitational, which the Eagles host Sept. 13 and 14. After that, it’s straight on to conference play.

“Our goal is to make it back to the NCAA tournament,” Dixon said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that if we put all of the pieces together the right way that we will be competing for that.”

In a twenty-minute conversation, the words ‘national championship’ are dropped twice and ‘NCAA tournament’ is said countless times. They are phrases that almost every coach in the country uses on a daily basis, but there is something about that determined gaze of Dixon’s that makes those lofty goals seem reachable.

Dixon will have a brand new gym floor to dig her heels into this fall, and if she has it her way those won’t be the only marks she makes on the newly renovated Kates Gymnasium. There are banners to hang.