From a special gift to an amazing run, Dayton looks to extend season in NCAA tournament
Sixty-four teams in this NCAA volleyball tournament, and only one boasts a single loss. It's not the Big Red from Nebraska.
Atlantic 10 champion Dayton (30-1), set to meet Pitt (24-8) in a first-round game at 5 p.m. on Friday, heads into the postseason behind the best winning percentage in the field. But anyone around this program in 2016 knew this was going to be a special season, long before coach Tim Horsmon even fathomed the first practice drill.
In mid-January, Dayton volleyball received the largest donation in its history, $1.2 million, funds that went toward turning Dayton's home gym into one of the finest in the nation. Lori Hausfeld contributed the money in memory of her daughter, Kacie, who played for the Flyers from 2007-2010. The Springboro, Ohio, native died April 1, 2010, when a plane, piloted by her father, Tom, crashed a mile or so from the family home the Thursday before Easter.
Tom Hausfeld was going to Chicago to pick up Kacie's sister, Ali, the 2006 ACC volleyball player of the year at Duke, who had since moved on to medical school. Kacie, home from college as a junior, tagged along to keep her dad company.
"I gave them each a kiss and told them, 'Let me know when you get there,' and never heard back," Lori said.
Tom was dead at 50; Kacie, 21.
Tom and Lori, high school sweethearts, regularly flew to Ali's games while she played for Duke. Kacie chose to stay closer to home, attracted to Dayton because "of the total support of the university community to making the program among the elite in the country," read her athletic bio.
Horsmon recruited Kacie, a setter, from Alter High but left to coach Maryland after her freshman season. When he returned to coach Dayton a second time in 2014, Lori Hausfeld felt moved to do something for the program in memory of Kacie.
"I've always felt a connection to UD, but when Tim came back, I felt there was a reason to do this, that it was the right time," she said. "I wanted the program to know Kacie was there and she loved that school. It's such a great feeling to know she has left an impact."
Horsmon was humbled by Lori's generosity, never expecting a gift of that magnitude. The money transformed the storied Thomas J. Frericks Center into a facility Horsmon doesn't hesitate to compare to any in the Power 5. While once upon a time, Elvis sang "Blue Suede Shoes" in the building and Martin Luther King Jr. told 6,500 that violence was not the answer, these days it's a volleyball-only arena. The court is named for Hausfeld, whose last name is written along the sideline opposite the team bench.
"We huddle there every time before each set at home matches," junior Maggie Schutter said. "It's an unspoken reminder of what she meant. We want to make sure the freshmen coming in understand the significance of what we do and why we do it because we don't want her to be forgotten."
Frericks has undergone renovations through the years, but the sizeable donation gave way for a complete facelift, including a team room named for Hausfeld, complete with couches, a fridge and space for the pregame meal before home matches.
The 5,000-seat arena looks brand new thanks to two scoreboards with replay capability, aesthetic improvements to improve the fan experience, improved lighting and a state-of-the-art sound system so that player introductions no longer mimic the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
"Everything but AC," Horsmon said. "We still want our opponents to feel uncomfortable."
The truth is the Flyers have done a good job of that in 2016 no matter the venue, another chapter in this memorable season for Dayton.
Winning the A-10 isn't unusual for the Flyers; they are the winningest program in the league with 11 championships in the last 14 years. That includes four perfect conference seasons.
But with five seniors graduated, Horsmon anticipated a rebuilding season, as only setter Jane Emmenecker and middle Amber Erhahon play the same roles they did in 2015. Dayton is steady, not flashy. The Flyers don't have a "wow" freshman like Wisconsin's Molly Haggerty or athletes on par with Florida's Rhamat Alhassan or Nebraska's Rolfzen twins.
Instead they've racked up wins with balance. It's helped to have middle blockers who are both potent on defense in Erhahon and Kendyll Brown and efficient hitters at the same time. Erhahon swings at a .420 clip, and Brown, who saw minimal time as a freshman, ranks third in the NCAA as a hitter at .438.
Sophomore Margo Wolf earned the conference's Libero of the Year award while Jessica Sloan, averaging a team-best 3.92 kills, fills the shoes of graduated conference player of the year Alaina Turner at outside hitter.
"We have a lot of good pieces; we don't necessarily have that one kid," Horsmon said. "We've had a lot of different kids step up for us at different moments."
Reflecting last week, Horsmon admits the 30-1 regular season surprised him, but at no point did he dwell on anything but improving. Dayton has won 19 straight since its only loss, to Loyola Marymount on Sept. 16.
The biggest thing for us is having that mindset that you can't be OK. You have to push for more. We know we have the talent to get to the next level.Maggie Schutter
"It's tough because my players kept looking at me like, 'We've lost one match this year and you're still not happy. Why aren't you happy?' But I always thought we weren't there yet," Horsmon said. "We were capable of more. At times maybe they were looking for some praise and instead we had some hard conversations."
Now they understand.
"We came into the season not really having expectations," Schutter said. "Everything fell into place and we had that chemistry. The biggest thing for us is having that mindset that you can't be OK. You have to push for more. We know we have the talent to get to the next level."
For the third year in a row, the Flyers travel to Penn State for the tournament. Last year they took a set off the defending national champions in the second round. The Flyers have never advanced to the Sweet 16.
"We're building toward that," Horsmon said.
A tougher nonconference slate is in the works for the 2017 season, with a goal of hosting first and second rounds next season. That's when the program ideally would be able to showcase its new gym with the nifty bells and whistles. Expect Lori Hausfeld to be sitting in the front row.
"This program isn't about this year; it's about a whole lot of years and a whole lot of players who have come through here and coaches and people who have turned this program into one of the best in the country," Horsmon said. "It's about legacy and about all the kids before, Kacie included. Right now, we're just an extension of that."