The turnaround started in 2004. The foundation was laid and the program rebuilt over the next four years and in 2012 the bar was set. Last year’s group of seniors reached the NCAA Tournament in all four seasons; a first for the University of Oklahoma volleyball program. This year’s seniors aim to raise the bar, take it to the next level, use every sports cliché in the book if that’s what it takes to get the Sooners into a fifth straight NCAA Tournament and seventh in eight seasons.
On Saturday night, Mindy Gowen, Sallie McLaurin, Keila Rodriguez and Eden Williams will take the floor at McCasland Field House, likely for the last time in their careers. After the regular season finale against Kansas at 7:00 pm that night, Oklahoma will learn its destination for the NCAA Tournament on Sunday night during the NCAA Selection Show live on ESPNU at 8:30 pm CST.
The Sooners, 21-7 entering the week and 9-5 in the Big 12, rank 23rd in the nation in RPI and appear headed for that fifth straight tournament appearance, something that has mind on the mind of the seniors.
“When we do make the tournament, we will be the second group of seniors to go all four years,” said Williams, a team captain and defensive specialist from Amarillo, Texas. “That was a group goal for us. We didn’t want to be the senior leadership that didn’t take us to the NCAA. I think we learned that from the girls prior. They may not all have made it every year, but they set the goal of making it.”
The seniors all came in together for the 2010 preseason and have watched each other, as well as their program, grow over the last four seasons.
“Each year we are getting better and are expected to make the NCAA Tournament and even win in the NCAA Tournament,” stated McLaurin, a middle blocker and team captain from Midwest City, Oklahoma. “Improving, individually, and having better recruits come in each year has been a key component to the program’s progress.”
The program began to turnaround in 2004 with the arrival of new head coach Santiago Restrepo. Prior to his arrival, Oklahoma had won just 27 matches in the four previous seasons, but the sustained success would not be possible without classes such as this year’s seniors.
“The past two years have been the two best senior classes that we have had,” recalled Restrepo. “Not only on the court, but off it too. This year’s seniors have all been very good role models and I am very proud of them. Individually, they each mean a lot to the program.”
The seniors, along with their coach, praise each other’s character as a cornerstone for the program’s success and a driving force behind the team’s work ethic and discipline required for greatness.
“Eden, Mindy and Keila have been role models to their teammates,” said McLaurin. “They have been very disciplined and I think they will leave behind an example for how players should perform on the court and off the court. Their character says a lot about them.”
“Sallie sets an example on and off the court as well,” added Williams. “I think we all have our own specialties, but at the same time we’re a team and ourselves. We all have to be on the same page.”
“Going to the Sweet 16 is still my favorite moment,” said Williams. “Beyond volleyball, I think our legacy is, as a group, just being able to show the girls on the team what they have going for them. I hope I helped them as much in their life as I did in their game.”
The Sooners have been on the same page since day one. Over the course of their four seasons together, the seniors have amassed an 87-41 record and 40-26 mark in the Big 12; making them the program’s winningest class since 1982. As freshman, this group helped the team to a second straight postseason and reached the program’s third NCAA Sweet 16. As the last remaining players on the team to experience the second weekend of tournament action, that still remains the groups greatest memory and accomplishment on the court.
Williams alludes to the fact that the program is made up of more than teammates, coaches and staff, but is rather like a family.
“I don’t think everyone has 18 best friends,” she added.
The time spent with one another extends far beyond the fall season. The players all train together in the offseason and many are in Norman over the summer to work camps.
“Oklahoma volleyball is like our second family,” said Gowen, a defensive specialist from Edmond, Oklahoma. “We’re spending more time with each other than with our own families.”
Rodriguez, an outside hitter from Gurabo, Puerto Rico, has had a little different experience than her classmates. She spends the entire year in Norman and arrived in 2010 knowing little English. For her, it was a familiarity and comfort level with the coaches and the family atmosphere fostered by them and her new teammates that made the adjustment easier.
“Santiago and Maria [Fernanda] were here and they both spoke Spanish and were really nice to me. Everyone was really nice here in Oklahoma, even though I couldn’t really speak English, they all made me feel like I was home.”
Prior to Saturday night’s match, the four seniors will be honored in front of the crowd at McCasland. Their individual awards and accomplishments will be read. Then they will walk out to midcourt with their families and wave to the crowd and look back to the bench where their second family waits to carry the torch for Oklahoma volleyball into the future.