Expectations were high for the John Brown Golden Eagles going into the volleyball season. Despite having a younger, less experienced team overall compared to last season, they were still picked to finish third in the Sooner Athletic Conference’s preseason poll. There’s still a lot of games that have to be played, but so far, JBU is living up to the hype.
The Golden Eagles opened their season on Feb. 22 at Bill George Arena in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, with a win over Mid-America Christian in four sets. While it wasn’t always pretty, as they dropped the first set and had close wins in the second and third, they were still able to snag their first win in their first match in over 400 days, against a MACU team that had previously played 16 matches. The JBU winning streak continued throughout the remainder of that week as they took wins on the road against USAO on Friday and Lyon on Saturday before dropping a match the following Wednesday against Oklahoma City at Abe Lemons Arena.
The Golden Eagles came back to Bill George Arena on Friday, March 5, to take on the Southwestern Christian Eagles, a team that hadn’t won a set, or a match, since Oct. 23 and had a 1-8 record up to that point. It wasn’t a bed of roses for JBU, as the team had to mount a late run to keep SCU from winning the first set, they were still able to complete the sweep on Southwestern Christian behind 10 kills from Micah Fouts and Savanna Riney to improve to a 4-1 record over the first two weeks of the season.
JBU head coach Ken Carver likes what he sees from his team these first two weeks. “I really appreciate our players’ desire to continue to learn and improve in the practice environment and the flexibility and adaptability they’ve shown in regards to our lineup,” Carver said. “Additionally, when we’ve had moments that we aren’t performing well, our players on the bench have been prepared and ready to step in and play. For a team that is younger, those are huge benefits this early in the season. I really like how encouraging our players are of one another and the volume of cheering on our bench. This is the loudest bench I think I may have had in my time at JBU.”
Another big story for the Golden Eagles has been the performances of the team’s underclassmen, as the top five leaders in kills on the team are all freshmen and sophomores. Meanwhile, Jillian Blackman, a sophomore libero, earned SAC Defensive Player of the Week honors on March 8 and has been a key contributor to JBU’s back line, averaging 23 digs per contest.
When assessing his underclassmen, Carver notes that the fact that his team didn’t play any games last fall and solely focused on elevating their games in preparation for the spring has gone a long way in helping the development of the team’s younger players.
“Our underclassmen worked hard this past fall to get up to speed and get a thorough grasp of our offensive and defensive systems of play,” Carver said, adding that “If we had played in the fall like we normally did, these players would have had to learn a lot more on the fly and may not have been able to develop the same kind of confidence in themselves and trust in their teammates as we were able to do this fall. As a result, I feel they are much more prepared and ready to meet the challenges and opportunities of our spring season.”
Meanwhile, the junior varsity program, under Steve Brankle, got their season underway on Feb. 24 against Oklahoma Wesleyan. They dropped that match and the following match on Feb. 27 against Seminole State before picking up their first win against Rose State in Midwest City, Oklahoma, on Tuesday, March 2. It was a big win for the program, but Brankle says his team is determined to put together more victories down the road.
“It was great to see the team win. While it was our first, it left us hungry for more,” Brankle said. “I’m proud of this team. They are a special group that represents JBU on and off the court.”
Despite dropping two out of their first three, there have still been several bright spots for the JV team. “A number of players have stepped up,” Brankle said. “Skyler [Robbins] is leading the team in kills and is second in digs. Brittney Ware is playing awesome at libero. She leads us in digs and her hustle and grit is contagious.”
The varsity team is now in the middle of a seven-day break between matches, and they will return to take on Oklahoma Panhandle State on Friday, March 12, in Goodwell, Oklahoma, the first of four matches over the course of five days. They will return to Bill George Arena on Tuesday, March 16, for a non-conference test against Williams Baptist.
While six of JBU’s first eight matches are on the road, the Golden Eagles will play five of their last six matches of the regular season within the comfortable confines of Bill George Arena. The JV team will return to Bill George Arena on Wednesday, March 17, to take on Ozark Christian.
Photo courtesy of Karen Penner