1986 National Runner-Up Volleyball Team Reunites at Calvin-Hope Volleyball Match
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
(editors note: members of the 1986 National runner-up Calvin volleyball team including head coach Karla Wolters reunite this evening and were recognized in between sets two and three. During the ceremony, head coach Karla Wolters was given honorary Calvin Knight status).
By Calvin Sports Information Director Jeff Febus
Topping a 37-4 season is no easy task for any volleyball team but the 1986 Calvin women’s volleyball team did just that and then some. In 1986, the Knights under the direction of head coach Karla Wolters put together a season like no other team in Calvin or MIAA history before, ripping off a 38-2 campaign that did not end until a heartbreaking five-game loss to the University of California at San Diego in the National Finals. The 38 win total is still a high water mark for any MIAA volleyball team as is the national runner-up finish.
With a roster full of talented veterans, head coach Karla Wolters knew she had something special heading into the 1986 season. “We had a very strong team the year before and returned several players from that team,” said Wolters. “We had a great nucleus of seniors who were just on fire all year.”
Despite the abundance of upperclassmen, the team received a spark from a young freshman setter named Amber Blankespoor who quickly caught the attention of her coach and her teammates during pre-season workouts. “Amber was very impressive right away,” said Wolters. “Some of the veterans on the team came up to me during tryouts and said she would be a great player for the varsity and they were right. She did a fabulous job setting for us all year.
Blankespoor’s emergence also provided greater flexibility for the offense as senior Roxanne Helmus was a strong setter and hitter. “Roxanne had developed into quite a hitter and she could also set,” said Wolters. “With Amber and Roxanne, we were able to go to a 6-2 offense. Once we made that move, opposing teams could no longer just focus on our front row. It made us a much more powerful team.”
Some of that power was generated by senior middle-hitter Julie Dykstra who according to Wolters, was “able to find the floor with regularity.” More power came from seniors Leah Calsbeek and Kim DeHaan. Other key players included junior Linda Dykerman and sophomore Laurel Calsbeek.
The Knights opened the season with a trip to Southern California where the Knights participated in a series of matches against Division III and NAIA foes, losing just one match – a contest against NAIA power Fresno Pacific. “At the time, California volleyball was the best,” said Wolters. “Our players were so focused on volleyball on that trip. They knew they had to be ready to play and we performed very well.”
Despite finishing with a 4-1 record on the trip, the Knights were not satisfied which served as a precursor for the rest of season. “We went into the trip with the idea of making a good impression,” said Wolters. “When we came back, our players were disappointed that we didn’t come back undefeated. I thought that was a great attitude and showed what kind of determination the group had.”
The Knights then swept through the MIAA season with a 12-0 record, capturing the championship of the prestigious Midwest Invitational along the way. With a 35-1 record, the Knights entered the NCAA III Tournament with a tidal wave of momentum and proceeded to defeat the University of Buffalo and Ohio Northern University in regional play.
The pair of regional victories lifted the Knights into the NCAA III Final Four and much to the delight of the team, Calvin was granted the right to host the finals at the Calvin Fieldhouse. In the national semifinals on Friday afternoon, 37-1 Calvin defeated 46-7 Wisconsin-LaCrosse 15-10, 15-9, 7-15, 15-11, advancing the Knights into the finals Saturday night against UC-San Diego. After the win over LaCrosse, local television sports anchor Warren Reynolds interviewed the entire team on his Friday night sports cast, encouraging the West Michigan community to come out to support the team.
”Warren did such a wonderful job interviewing us and got all of Grand Rapids pumped up,” said Wolters. “We were expecting a good crowd for Saturday but not a great crowd.”
What happened next exceeded all expectations as droves of fans arrived for the national championship final. “They just kept coming and coming,” said Wolters. “It was amazing. We ended up having so many fans that they had to pull out the north bleachers which had never happened for a home volleyball match. I was in awe watching all of those people come in.”
The final attendance total came in at 3,275 fans, creating an electric atmosphere. The opponent was a UC-San Diego Triton team that had captured the national championship just two years prior. The Tritons took the opening game 15-4 but the Knights roared back to win the next two games by scores of 15-10 and 15-3. With championship experience on its side, UC-San Diego refused to wilt, using a variety of serves and an offense that attacked from the back. The strategy paid off for the Tritons as they won game four 15-3 and game five 15-5 to capture the national championship.
”We had them but then they started serving so tough and we started having difficulties,” said Wolters. “We just couldn’t put them away.”
In his book: Golden Years Calvin’s First Half-Century in the MIAA, Calvin director of athletics emeritus Dave Tuuk interviewed several of the players from the 1986 team who stated that the loss taught them several life lessons.
“Losing in the fifth game after being up 2-1 was really tough,” said Julie Dykstra in Tuuk’s book, “but the loss has given me special empathy for teams that lose in the big game.”
Leah Calsbeek was also interviewed and said: “It was a season of dreams. Despite the heartbreak of the loss, I was able to see God’s hand not only in the good times but also when we lost. He gave us the ability to find joy in happy moments, but also grace in defeat.”
The post-season awards for the team were numerous. Dykstra, Helmus and Leah Calsbeek were named to the All-MIAA first team while Laurel Calsbeek and Kim DeHaan were named to the All-MIAA second team. Leah Calsbeek and Dykstra shared the MIAA’s Most Valuable Player. In addition, Leah Calsbeek and Dykstra were named to the All-America first team while Helmus was named to the All-America second team, marking the first and only time that three Calvin volleyball players were named All-Americans in the same year. To top it off, Wolters was named the NCAA III Coach of the Year, becoming just the second coach in MIAA history including the first coach of an MIAA women’s team to do so.
At the conclusion of the 1986-87 academic year, Wolters accepted a teaching and coaching position at her alma mater Hope College. Earlier this fall, she announced her retirement from Hope at the conclusion of the 2009-10 academic year. Her retirement will conclude a remarkable 30-year collegiate coaching career that includes the sports of volleyball, softball, basketball, field hockey and tennis. With over 1,700 collegiate athletic contests to her credit as a coach, Wolters still looks back on the 1986 Calvin volleyball season with fondness.
“It was quite an unusual year,” said Wolters. “I remember it more than other year of my coaching career. We had so many different personalities that meshed so well together. They played their hearts out all year long.”
1986 Calvin College Volleyball Team
Front Row (L-R): Laurel Calsbeek, Jane DeHaan, Joan Deeker, Roxanne Helmus
Second Row (L-R): Amber Blankespoor, Kellie Blurton, Linda Dykerman, Kim DeHaan, Chris Psconda
Back Row (L-R): Assistant Coach Mary Doornbos, Kris Speidel, Kristi Poortenga, Leah Calsbeek, Julie Dykstra, Lisa DeJong, Elsa Wilgenburg, Head coach Karla Wolters