How do you replace a coaching icon -- someone whose very name can define a team? How do you replace someone who has amassed over 500 career victories and multiple Mid-American Conference championships while running a program for an incredible 29 years out of its 36-year existence?
If you are Bowling Green State University volleyball head coach Danijela Tomic, you lead your team to:
- The most wins (22) since the 2008 season
- The most MAC wins (13) since the 2006 season
- A nine-game mid-season winning streak
- The team's first conference tournament championship in 21 years -- won in the most improbable, dramatic way possible
- The team's first NCAA tournament berth in 21 years AND the team's first-ever NCAA tournament victory
- Three first-team All-MAC selections
In other words, Tomic and the BGSU volleyball team accomplished things that are not exactly run-of-the-mill.
What can Tomic do for an encore? And is it possible for the 2013 BGSU volleyball team to even approach the 2012 team's feats, much less surpass them?
Amazingly enough, the answer to those questions is "yes", at least on paper. Lindsey Butterfield, Paige Penrod, and Danielle Tonyan all return for the 2013 season after earning first-team All-MAC honors last year. In fact, five of BGSU's six players who started more than five games are back. That includes Laura Avila and Kaitlyn Skinner. Avila totaled the best kill percentage (.295) among the starters, and she tied for the best serve percentage (.941). She accomplished the latter with the most attempts (495).
The team had 1,697 kills in 2012, and players who account for an 86 percent of those will play on the 2013 team.
Even with all of this returning talent and a senior-laden roster, it is certainly a different team. Leah Shaw will have to be replaced, and that is no small task. She accounted for 1.61 kills per set, 1.00 blocks per set and 23 aces during the 2012 season. Aside from the seven seniors, there are two juniors on the roster, and that's all for experience. The rest of the 2013 squad will be made up of newcomers. All of them will be freshmen with one notable exception -- Allison Papenfuss.
If that name sounds familiar, it should. Papenfuss has spent the last four years as a member of the BGSU women's basketball team. As a member of the basketball team, she scored 372 points and corralled 355 rebounds in four seasons. She played on teams that played in two NCAA Tournaments and made two WNIT appearances. She played in 125 of 133 possible games, and BGSU compiled a 103-30 record in that time.
In her only year of volleyball eligibility, Papenfuss should bring a wealth of winning experience and can serve as a veteran leader for the team.
The 2013 freshman class goes eight-deep, and Tomic went all over to find talent. Only three of the eight players hail from Ohio; the rest come from places like Texas, Florida, Colorado and even Croatia. Two of the players will stand head-and-shoulders above the rest -- literally. Jelena Sunjic, of Croatia, measures six feet and three inches, while Desi Klaer, from Ford Collins, Colo., is even taller. Standing 6'5", she should be one of the tallest players in the MAC this year.
In order to get ready for MAC play, Tomic's squad will have to go through a difficult non-conference gauntlet. They begin on the 30th of August by hosting the Hampton Inn Invitational. That tournament includes Marquette, Creighton and Brigham Young. During the following week, BGSU must travel to South Bend, Ind. for the Golden Dome Invitational, in which they will face both Purdue and Notre Dame. They will also play Dabrowa, a team from Poland, in that event.
The Falcons also have a trip to Madison, Wisc. for a tournament that includes Kansas and Wisconsin. They also play neutral-site games against Virginia Tech and Rice before finally beginning the MAC schedule on September 26. In the middle of the MAC slate, BGSU must travel north for a game against Oakland, and they play at Dayton after the conclusion of the MAC Tournament in November.
Danijela Tomic and the Falcons have a daunting task ahead of them, and there will undoubtedly be high expectations for the team this year. However, if the team can avoid complacency, learn from their non-conference matches and get some solid contributions from the newcomers, they have the ingredients to match (and perhaps even surpass) the exploits of the 2012 team.
Recently, I had the opportunity to ask Tomic several questions. Below are those questions and her answers:
Denise Van De Walle led the volleyball program at BGSU for three decades, and it is often difficult for coaches to follow tenures like hers. Did you feel any pressure to succeed in your first season, and what did you do to make the program "your own"?
Coach Van De Walle built an amazing volleyball program, and I was honored to be her successor. I didn't feel any pressure, because I knew there was a great foundation already in place for us to be successful, from the quality student-athletes that were recruited by Coach Van De Walle and her staff, to support and commitment of our athletic administration.
Every coach brings her/his personality to the team, and I think I did that with our team. We work hard every day, we get better every day, we work as a team, and we are fearless in our pursuit of excellence.
We have high goals for this upcoming season, but ultimately, it's the process and the journey that will determine how successful we will be. I think our seven seniors are committed to having a great finish to their careers at BGSU, and they will be the backbone and leadership of our team. We all define success differently, and to me, it is what Coach (John) Wooden said, "Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you did your best to become the best that you are capable of becoming." We hope that our best this year will be enough to win the MAC regular season, the MAC Championship, and get in the Sweet 16 (of the NCAA Tournament). However, if we don't accomplish all of those goals but know that we did the best that we could, had a great journey while becoming a team and better people, I will consider our season a success.
Most of your statistical leaders are coming back this year, but every team is different. How will this year's team be different from last, and how can it be better?
We have eight freshmen, two juniors, seven seniors and one fifth year senior, so our team will definitely be very different from last year's. However, five of our starters are seniors, and we expect them to lead our freshmen and be role models for them. Our upperclassmen have done a wonderful job of integrating our newcomers into the team since everyone is already at Bowling Green taking summer classes.
Having more depth in each position will definitely increase competitiveness in the gym, and I believe that will help all of our players to get better. We made so much progress last year when it comes to our skill and mental toughness development, but there is a lot more that we can improve. We worked on speeding up our offense during spring training and will continue to do that, while continuing to improve our serve receiving and serving game.
This year, Allison Papenfuss is a member of the team after spending four years playing basketball for BGSU. How does her experience benefit the team? Also, how can her skills in basketball translate to volleyball?
We are thrilled that Ally decided to use her fifth year of eligibility to play volleyball. She brings a lot of competitiveness, passion, winning attitude and enthusiasm to the gym every day and pushes the rest of her teammates to work hard. She is a great example of someone who is not afraid to fail and make mistakes because she decided to play Division I volleyball after four years of not playing the sport. Many athletes would not put themselves in that position, especially after they were part of a three-time championship basketball program. Ally understands that with the right mindset and hard work, she can improve and contribute to our team.
Your 2013 non-conference schedule is very ambitious and includes multiple games against Big Ten schools. How do you think this will help the team prepare for the conference schedule, and are there any potential consequences to playing against this level of competition?
This year's non-conference schedule is the toughest that I've ever put in place. I believe we have a team that can and should be competing at the highest level. I believe that tough competition brings the best out of us and makes us better individually and as a team. We teach our team to embrace competition for those reasons. We had a very tough non-conference schedule last year, which prepared us well for the MAC. I believe those challenging matches in the preseason were instrumental in our success last year, and I hope that this year would prove the same.
From a personal standpoint, how special was last year's post-season run (MAC title, NCAA Tournament win)?
All of last season was very special for me, but the post-season success was what every coach dreams of. Even though I've been in the NCAA Tournament three times with my previous team, this was the first time that my team won the conference tournament and earned an automatic berth. Beating Yale in the first round of the NCAA Tournament was another special moment because our team accomplished something that no BGSU volleyball team had ever done before. It was also very special to see a group of young ladies accomplish something that they always wanted to but had to struggle and overcome a lot of adversity before they did it.
Finally, what do you think sets apart BGSU and the MAC from other stops during your coaching career?
There is a lot of pride and support for BGSU in the community, and the MAC is a well-respected conference. Besides my short stop at LSU, I've never been at a place with so much history and pride. It didn't take me a long time to feel at home in Bowling Green, and I attribute that to open and big-hearted people who support me and our volleyball program.