Still smarting from being swept in the 2002 NCAA Division III National Championship final, the University’s volleyball team gathered in mid-August for a preseason party. There, head coach Rich Luenemann made a bold prediction: “I believe we’re going to win the national championship.”
Fast-forward to Dec. 6 — 41 matches later — and sure enough, Luenemann proved to be a man of his word.
The Bears beat New York University, 30-26, 32-30, 30-22, in the final match of the NCAA Tournament at the University of La Verne (Calif.) Supertents to win their Division III-record eighth national title in 10 trips to the Final Four.
It’s Luenemann’s first national championship.
“Obviously, I’m elated,” he said. “It’s a feeling of intense satisfaction that you get when all the pieces fit perfectly together.
“This team enjoyed incredible chemistry and unbelievable senior leadership.”
The Bears’ final record was an impressive 38-3.
In their four years on the Hilltop Campus, those three seniors — Amy Brand, Cindy McPeak and Katie Quinn — helped lead the Bears to a 145-16 record, four University Athletic Association titles, four NCAA Tournament appearances and of course this year’s national championship.
“It was heartbreaking to lose last year in the final,” McPeak said of last year’s national runner-up finish to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. “With three seniors on the team, we weren’t going to let that happen again.
“We peaked at the right time.”
McPeak, who was named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team, finished the season with 315 kills, a team-high 52 service aces and 105 total blocks.
Quinn, a third-team American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) All-American, led the Bears in hitting percentage (.376) and was second in total blocks (149 for an average of 1.12 per game). She also was named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team.
Brand hit .308 and posted team-highs of 36 solo blocks and 127 block assists (163 total blocks for an average of 1.19 per game). She also broke the single-match record for block assists with 13 against Ohio Northern University in the national quarterfinal. Her 127 block assists also were an individual single-season school record.
And the records kept on falling. The 2003 Bears set single-season school marks for kills (2,245), assists (2,004), block assists (547) and total blocks (404). Sophomore libero Nicole Hodgman became the first player in University history to surpass the 600-dig plateau in a single season, with 606.
Early in the season, the Bears fell to Elmhurst College, UW-Whitewater and Juniata College and were 10-3 by mid-September. However, after the 3-0 loss to Juniata Sept. 19, WUSTL would not lose another match.
“We challenged this team with an exceptionally tough schedule,” Luenemann said. “We wanted them to learn to deal with adversity. As the season progressed, we continued to get better, as evidenced by our 28-match winning streak.”
It’s the fifth-longest string of wins in WUSTL history, and the number could increase as it carries over into next season.
“After our first practice, I remember going into my office and thinking we were going to win the national title,” Luenemann said. “We had all the ingredients for success, but we just had to get better each week.
“The key was the evolution of Kara Liefer as a premier setter. At the beginning of the year, Kara was a great athlete but an average setter, but she became a great setter by the end of the year.”
Liefer, who replaced 2002 AVCA Division III National Player of the Year Rebecca Rotello, registered 1,629 assists (11.64 per game), the second-best single-season total in school history. Liefer’s athletic ability made her a multiple threat in the Bears’ system, as she posted 227 kills, 303 digs and 108 blocks.
She, too, made the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team.
“Team chemistry is what helped us the most,” Liefer said. “We played like a family and pulled through when we needed to.”
WUSTL cruised through conference play, posting a 12-0 mark in the round robin and championship to win its 15th straight UAA title. The Bears have won 16 of the 17 UAA titles since the conference began in 1987.
“The seniors were great role models on and off the court,” Luenemann said. “Katie, Cindy and Amy set the tone for the intensity of our practices and matches. They demonstrated how Bears should play.”
And with that the torch is passed to the likes of first-team AVCA All-American Colleen Winter, Jasmine Hunt and Ishi Ballew, each of who will be seniors in 2004.
Winter, an outside hitter known for her tremendous passing and versatility, led the Bears in kills (448) and total attacks (1,159) and was second in digs (567).
Ballew split time with sophomore Heidi Pfeiffer on the left side and averaged 1.43 kills per game after playing in the back row for much of the latter part of the year.
Pfeiffer averaged 2.47 kills per game and posted a team-high 12 kills in the national championship match. Hunt is one of the team’s leaders after serving as co-captain with the three seniors.
Sophomore Megan Houck hit .335 playing in the middle behind Brand and Quinn, while freshman Amy Bommarito appeared in all but six games on the back row and averaged 2.26 digs per game.
“I can’t wait for practice to begin next year,” Luenemann said. “We return a talented group of players.
“In fact, during the last half of the season, the second team beat the first team about half of the time. That bodes well for the future of the Bears. We want to make a habit of this.”