If the No. 1-ranked Wittenberg volleyball team is to raise a second national championship banner, it must first follow the advice of the white board.
In a program built on player development and attention to detail, the white board holds the secrets. It is where coach Paco Labrador lists the goals of each practice. The drills that ensue are designed to make the team better at whatever the white board says.
“We’re very intentional with each drill we do, so I never feel like I’m wasting time at practice,” junior setter and co-captain Karen Wildemann said. “It seems like every drill, every step we take is for a reason.”
The desire to improve each day feeds the hunger this 18-0 team has to win it all. The players see the banner Labrador’s team won in 2011 and want to see theirs next to it. But the motivation is more personal than matching what a previous team did. The motivation comes from how last season ended and an incomplete legacy.
In the second round of the NCAA Division III tournament, the Tigers lost a five-set match to Milikin. That’s not supposed to happen to a program with five final four appearances and a runner-up finish in 2015.
“It was an extremely hungry offseason,” Labrador said. “We’re always a very hard-working team, but this was extra motivation to be ready to come in and have a great year.”
Ranked No. 1 in the national coaches poll and the NCAA Great Lakes regional rankings is a good start. The Tigers have beaten five teams in the current top 25, and they are one of only two unbeaten teams in the nation.
“It was very evident when I came into the program that we’re a high-caliber program,” said sophomore Taylor Yontz, the team’s starting libero and a Shawnee graduate. “So it was evident to me that losing in the second round is not what we’re about.”
The time to start a championship run is close. This is the last week of the regular season and a likely 14th North Coast Athletic Conference championship under Labrador. The next step is to win a 14th NCAC tournament championship. Then it’s on to the NCAA tournament.
“They’re playing as well as they are because they’re very much engaged in the present,” Labrador said. “The big picture’s out there for them, but I see this team really enjoying each moment.”
Kennedey Schmidt, a junior middle hitter and first-year starter from Northmont, understands what it’s like to not enjoy a moment. She mostly watched from the bench in the losses that ended the past two seasons. But she said that doesn’t lessen her hunger to help make amends for last season’s premature finish.
“This year feels more intense,” she said. “Right now everybody’s on the same page, everybody’s gung-ho, everybody wants to work their butts off to win and do nothing less than succeed. You realize that you’re part of something bigger than yourself, bigger than what you thought you’d ever be a part of. The feeling you get from that is almost indescribable.”
The culture of success Schmidt loves relies heavily on self-improvement and working out with teammates in the offseason. It has to be that way, Labrador says, because of Division III rules. He can only coach his team during the season and for 16 practices in the spring.
“While you have them you have to teach them how to teach themselves,” he said. “So it’s not just how to do it, it’s why. Because if they relied on you to do all the coaching, you only have them for little segments. And then nothing would happen in the non-practices.”
And if you want to know what happens in the real practices, just look at the white board for today’s keys to that ultimate success.
“Success,” Wildemann said, “will hopefully be winning a national championship.”