After playing some of the best NJCAA Div. I volleyball teams in the country, the Tyler Junior College team came home somewhat satisfied and looking forward to a well-earned rest.
But then it’s back to work for coach Ronda Shirley and her staff, who want to begin building on the Apache Ladies’ success as the fifth-place finisher in last week’s national championship tournament in West Plains, Mo.
As an Elite 8 team — the best finish in school history — the Apache Ladies added another patch to the black and gold banner hanging in Wagstaff Gymnasium.
Currently the lone entry on the banner list is 2002, the only other time the volleyball team has reached nationals. But there’s still a lot of blank space to fill.
Shirley, who was voted a Regional Coach of the Year by her peers, said the successful season begins a new era in volleyball for TJC.
“These ladies have done a good job of building what I knew was possible to build here; they’ve laid a strong foundation,” she said. “I think in the next five years, slowly building … to being one of the top teams in the nation. I think we are establishing that, but obviously there is still room to build.”
That means the expectation for next year’s squad is to return to the national tournament.
“I think once you get there (nationals) you get hungry for that and you raise the level of expectation,” Shirley said. “These freshmen don’t want to be satisfied just going their freshman year.”
The team finished the season with a 32-6 overall record, including an undefeated conference record, losing only two games overall. The Apache Ladies lost five times to San Jacinto College and once to Salt Lake Community College.
Shirley said it was unfortunate TJC had to play San Jacinto in the second match of nationals. The Apache Ladies had defeated San Jac once in the regional tournament, but were crushed 3-0 by the Lady Ravens in the nationals.
San Jacinto went on to finish third.
Shirley said the team proved to itself they could defeat San Jacinto, but the game became “too much about whom we were playing.”
“I truly believe that if we had met up with any other team besides San Jacinto we would have been in the final four,” she said.
TJC finished with a 3-1 record at the nationals, defeating Redlands Community College (Oklahoma), Hillsborough College (Florida) and College of Central Florida.
An estimated 35 TJC fans, including parents, make the trip to West Plains to support the Apache Ladies and live Internet coverage of the games attracted a total of 5,100 views.
The Apache Ladies began the year with a dozen freshmen and four sophomores.
Shirley said she is proud of all the hard work the freshmen have put in this year, but she said she has seen the most growth out of Jordan McArdle, a 5-10 outside hitter from Crosby.
“She’s played with a lot of confidence during the tournament,” Shirley said. “That is something I’ve seen her get better and better at all season.”
As for the sophomores, Shirley said they all had games in which they showed their strengths and played well.
“It would be difficult to focus on just one of the sophomores because they all had their moments,” she said.
Sophomore Jacqueline Santos, a 6-1 middle blocker from Brazil, earned All-Tournament honors.
“I was really surprised,” Santos said of the honor “We worked hard all season. I’m glad we were able to finish at least fifth.”
Santos and sophomore Ivana Bulajic, a right side hitter and middle blocker from Serbia, have committed to play volleyball for Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton, Fla.
The remaining two sophomores, Adrienn Amora and Lindsey Jones, are in the sights of several different recruiters for four-year schools, Shirley said.
As for the entire team, the coach said she was very pleased with their overall performance at the tournament.
“I’m really, really proud of them,” Shirley said. “I was very pleased with how they played. I think the team took it to heart and wanted to finish as strong as they could.”