One might think that Mark Birtwistle, head coach of Eastern’s immensely successful women’s volleyball team, would describe his program with a word like “dominant” or “unstoppable”. Without question, the team has proven their dominance, but Birtwistle decides to choose a much different word to describe his team: “Authentic.”
“Our goal is to strive for competitive greatness and do our very best on the court,” says Birtwistle, “but it is also to develop authentic relationships with people we interact with both inside and outside of the program.”
Eastern’s volleyball program has become synonymous with “winning,” but that is not enough for the members of this team. As they prime for another run toward the NCAA tournament, the players and coaching staff share the concensus that this will be a fine year both on and off the court.
According to Birtwistle, last year came to a “bittersweet ending” for the team. During the regular season, the Eagles climbed as high as 5th in the national rankings, and held this spot for most of the year. “It was nice to put Eastern on the map a little bit”, said Birtwistle.
The team posted a record of 30-5, beating three different teams in within the top five in the nation. However, when the Eagles reached the NCAA playoffs, they were put in a difficult bracket and seeded number 3 in their pool even despite their aforementioned status as 5th in the nation. They were seeded below two teams they had beaten during the regular season, Colorado and Christopher Newport. With this difficult and unexpected bracket, the Eagles were eliminated in the second round during a hard-fought game with Christopher Newport that went to five sets.The season was cut short, but Birtwistle says that he and the rest of the team now feel as though they have something to prove to their competitors. With this attitude they are embarking on a new season. The success of recent years inevitably puts high expectations on these student athletes and their coaches, but they are ready to live up to their potential as they are currently ranked number 5 in the polls.
“Nothing has changed,” says Birtwistle. “Our goal is still to reach the Elite 8 because, once you get there, anything can happen.”
The squad lost four players from last year who each played a substantial starting role on the team, but Birtwistle is confident that his talented recruits will help to fill the void. These freshmen include Nicole Wagner, Amy Gaurino, Lauren Sproles and Katrina Pisch, each of whom are expected to take on a special role in the Eagle’s push for a national title.
Where these freshmen lack experience, the rest of the team more than compensates. Five seniors lead the charge, each with extensive on-court experience through their years of play at Eastern. Two players that stand out are setter Maria Horning and outside hitter Courtney Reinhold. Both have been nationally recognized with AVCA All-American honors in each of their last 3 seasons.
Captain Maria Horning voiced her prediction for the upcoming season; “With the returning foundation of five seniors and talented incoming freshmen, we will contend with the top 10 teams in the nation and we are willing to work hard in order to achieve that end” Horning said.
Courtney Reinhold held the same sentiment, stressing the importance of taking nothing for granted. “We always try to think of ourselves as the underdog in every situation so we can perform at the highest level in each and every game”, she said.
It is with this relentless and hard-working attitude that the Eagles set their sights on a coveted national title. One of their mantras for this season is to always “go for the goal.” It is clear that this program not only possesses a physical advantage, but also adds a mental fierceness to their repertoire, which will help them achieve great things this year. Every time they step onto the court, the captains hand their opponent a small piece of paper that is transcribed with a quote by famous basketball coach John Wooden defining competitive greatness: “A real love for the hard battle, knowing it offers the opportunity to be at your best when your best is required.” The Eagles have shown their ability to rise to the occasion and achieve greatness in the past, and this year looks to be no different. Courtney, Maria, and the rest of the returning players are already showing their potential this season as they went undefeated 4-0 in a weekend tournament at Gettysburg College. Upon winning their match against the University of Scranton in three sets, the seniors including Horning, Reinhold, Mary Poole, Nikki Kummerer, and Christi Schlager got their 100th win and Coach Birtwistle achieved his 500th.
If you would like to support the Eagles as they march toward the Elite 8 in St. Louis this year, you can see them in their home opener against Delaware Valley College on Wednesday, September 14th.