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Final four appearance brings national recognition

After her team returned from their march to the Final Four in St. Louis, All-American volleyball star Maria Horning reflected that this past season has been a great ending to her four-year stint playing for the Eagles.

Finally seeing all of the team’s talent and relentless work ethic pay off, Horning commented, “This season has proven to be a culmination of a lot of vision and hard work. It is a fantastic ending to all the goals we set and steps we took to achieve those goals.”

While the team’s loss to Wittenberg University may have marked the end of their season and the seniors’ illustrious careers, it has come to stand for more of a beginning for Eastern athletics as a whole. This appearance brought a new wave of recognition upon which the volleyball program and athletic department as whole will be able to build.

By becoming the first Eastern University athletic team to appear in the Final Four, the volleyball program has gained national respect. This will be especially reflected, Head coach Mark Birtwistle hopes, in his recruiting efforts for next year.

“Obviously every competitive school tells their recruits that a goal is to be one of the best teams in the country,” Birtwistle said. “Now that is a reality for us.”

With this new honor to pin to the team’s collective lapel, Birtwistle and the Eagles are in a good position as they seek to replace voids in their roster created by five graduating seniors, including four-time All-Americans Courtney Reinhold and Maria Horning.

“My hope is that we’ll bring in the next two All-Americans just like we brought in Courtney and Maria,” Birtwistle said. “Bringing in those next-caliber players says a lot about the success of our teams in the past.”

While obvious disappointment loomed in the air after the Eagle’s loss in straight sets to Wittenberg, it is important for players to keep the magnitude of their accomplishments in perspective. Wittenberg was unstoppable throughout the entire tournament, losing only one set overall.

“I played soccer at Messiah and made the Final Four with my team,” Birtwistle recalled, “And it still means a lot see that trophy and reflect on great memories there. I think these girls will be even more proud once the reality sets in of just how amazing their accomplishments together have been.”

While Eastern’s goal after reaching the Final Four was obviously to win the championship, preseason goals included winning their region and reaching the Elite Eight, goals that they surpassed.

“Our goal as a program a few years ago was to go from a regionally competitive team to a nationally competitive team,” Birtwistle said. “We wanted to not only be able to compete with those teams, but beat them—beat the best competition there was.”

Clearly this goal has been realized in the Eagle’s amazing accomplishments this season. Ending the year ranked third in the country and reaching the final four proves this team’s meld to be among the best of the best in Division three volleyball.

Graduating setter Maria Horning finished by extending a voice of gratitude, saying, “Thanks to Eastern administration and students for all the cheering and support. It has been a great run.”

While the “run” for Horning and the rest of the seniors has been nothing short of incredible, it does unfortunately end here. However, if the past is any indication, the program promises to continue on this path of success, creating even more memories for players and fans in the years to come.

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