Often in sports, the most successful teams aren’t necessarily those with all the best athletes, but instead, are the teams with all the right athletes. That was the case with this year’s Cardinal volleyball team.
Saint Mary’s posted a 23-8 regular-season record and earned a spot in the MIAC postseason tournament. After recording an impressive 3-0 victory over Concordia in the MIAC Playoff quarterfinals, the Cardinals lost to Saint Thomas 3-1 in the semifinals. They finished the season at 24-9, their most wins since SMU won 27 during the 2000 season.
Both the coaching staff and the student athletes will tell you it was a successful season because of the way the group came together as a team — like fitting together all the right pieces to a puzzle.
The Cardinals had hard workers, strong senior leadership, talented newcomers and dedicated role players. There was a good mixture of vocal leaders and people who led by example. The squad had student-athletes who played for small high school programs and transfer student-athletes who came from large collegiate programs.
“We had groups of ladies who have really different backgrounds and we had ladies with really diverse backgrounds of volleyball playing experience,” SMU coach Mike Lester said. “But they really seemed to come together this year.
“Buy-in by every single player on your team is the difference between a good team and a great team — and all 17 players on our team believed they had an impact on our success and bought in.”
Leading the squad were seniors Lexi Assimos and Kaylee Bunne. Assimos ran the floor from the setter position, while Bunne was the leader who always had her finger on the pulse of the team.
“Lexi was one of the most dynamic players in our league at the setter position,” Lester said. “And Kaylee was one of those players that you just have to have on your team. She knew what our team needed in every situation.”
“What made this year different is that we were all on the same page,” Assimos said. “We could look down our bench and know that everyone is in it.”
“There was less of a focus on the individual and more on the team,” Bunne said. “Everyone worked as hard as everyone else. And the depth that our team had this year was awesome.”
Adding to the talent pool this year was the addition of two transfer student-athletes — Alex Peterson and Kenzie Lind. Peterson came from Bemidji State University and Lind came from Minnesota State University, Mankato.
Both made quite an impact with the Cardinals. Peterson led the team with kills, while Lind was second.
“I was initially nervous on how I would fit in with the team being a transfer student,” Peterson said. “But the team was very welcoming and the girls were easy to get along with.
“This team was not like one I have ever played on. I think we had a large array of different types of people on our team, but the best part is how we all came together, wanting the same thing in volleyball. It never ceases to amaze me that despite our differences, we could come together as one team and accomplish so many great things in the course of one season.”
Another new face in the program this year was a student-athlete who was at SMU last season, but wasn’t playing volleyball. Sophomore Macki Fadness decided to return to volleyball this year — after a standout high school career — and now that the season is over, she returned to roaming the blue line as an All-MIAC performer for the women’s hockey team.
“Adding Macki as a hockey/volleyball player brought a whole new positive dynamic to our team this year, too,” Lester said.
Perhaps the biggest factor to this year’s success was the positive attitudes and contributions of the squad’s role players — including the student-athletes who were forced into different roles with the addition of new players.
“With the addition of two transfer students, there’s a potential for tension in the team,” Lester said. “But I give athletes like Jenna Sullivan and Brooke Schilling a ton of credit, because both played very critical roles in our success without a negative word. As far as team cohesion goes, those two were key.”
Another key to the Cardinals’ success was the team’s defensive play.
“We were in the top five in the conference in both blocking and defense, which doesn’t happen often,” Lester said. “Taylor MacVey, Brooke Schilling, Jordan Wolfe, Morgan Thomas and Lex Krogstad helped make us one of the best defensive teams in the conference and region.
“The improvement in our defense was the single biggest improvement from last year. Our defense kept us in matches and frustrated opponents.”
Krogstad led the squad with digs, followed by Thomas, Wolfe and Assimos. Mary Nordick led SMU in blocks and was third on the team in kills.
“I think our team’s success was a result of different components coming together,” Peterson said. “We had really good team chemistry and I think that’s why some things just seemed to ‘work.’ I really look forward to what the future holds for us.”