Volleyball

GCU, the ever-growing school in the desert, has volleyball programs on the rise

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When Tim Nollan left USC to be Grand Canyon’s women’s volleyball coach in 2016, the school’s sports programs still were in the transitional phase from Division II to Division I. 

He didn’t even have an office. 

The building that would house his and other athletic offices was still a dirt lot on the sprawling West Phoenix campus.

Camden Gianni remembered how, during his freshman season with the GCU men’s volleyball team, the then-seniors would talk about how much the campus had changed during their time at the school. Now a redshirt junior, Gianni is telling incoming freshmen how much the campus has changed during <ital>his<end ital> time at Grand Canyon.

Family and friends would give Allison Hansen quizzical looks and pepper her with questions when she told them she was going to Grand Canyon to play beach volleyball. They knew very little – or nothing at all – about the school, she said.

Three years later, the Grand Canyon beach team no longer is unknown. The same could be said for all of GCU’s volleyball teams and its athletic programs in general.

In less than a decade, Grand Canyon went from being an obscure little school in the desert to a prominent player on the Division I stage, particularly in volleyball. All three programs have experienced rapid growth and incremental success over the past seven years.

“The goal that we all have as coaches is to win conference championships and make it to NCAAs and compete for a national championship,” said beach coach Kristen Rohr, in her eighth season with GCU. “That’s just kind of the standard the school sets for its athletics and the standard we set for ourselves.”

Rapid expansion

The fast rise of GCU’s volleyball programs can be tied to the university’s sudden growth.

Founded in 1949 in Prescott, Arizona, Grand Canyon College was a Baptist-affiliated school that focused on degrees in religious studies. Two years later, it moved 100 miles south to a 90-acre tract of real estate in West Phoenix.

Programs of study and student population continued to expand, and by the early 1980s, Grand Canyon was set to move to full-blown university status. That became reality in 1989, 40 years after the school’s founding.

But a little more than a decade later, according to the GCU website, the school was on the brink of financial collapse. In September 2003, a group of investors bought the university and turned much of its energy toward online education. That proved to be a financial boon to Grand Canyon, and, five years later, the website says, the university completed an initial public offering to raise the funds necessary to improve its online component as well as expand the campus.

A new leadership team also took over the school at about the same time, and the growth has been meteoric since.

GCU beach coach Kristen Rohr and Allanis Navas

From 2009 until 2017, GCU, now a for-profit entity that bills itself as “Christian” but no longer is affiliated with a specific denomination, grew from fewer than 1,000 students to nearly 20,000. The current number of online students is more than 60,000. And since 2009, more than $1 billion has been put into the school.

“We have a beautiful campus,” Rohr said. “We have beautiful dorms. Our athletic facilities are high-class. I think when you step on campus, it kind of sells itself.”

Hansen, a junior, said there are pools all over campus, there are a myriad of activities at any given time and the campus is “extremely safe,” with security people at every turn.

“The university itself is very affordable,” said Hansen, who is from Everett, Washington. “The location, I mean, Arizona is super sunny all the time … The campus is so beautiful. They always have activities going on … so you never feel like you’re left out.”

Said Gianni: “To be able to see the growth the school has had over the last five years within athletics, within the student body, has been something really awesome.”

As the university has taken off, so, too have its sports teams. 

Consider:

  • In the fall, the women’s volleyball team participated in its first postseason tournament as a Division I school, receiving a bid to that National Invitational Volleyball Championship. (Nollan said the team received bids to the NIVC in 2019 and 2021 but, because of injuries and other issues, turned them down.)
  • The beach volleyball team debuted in the NCAA Tournament last season, going in as the No. 7 team in the country. Rohr’s team checked in at No. 6 in the latest AVCA poll released Tuesday.
  • The men’s volleyball team entered the week 20-1 and ranked fifth in the latest AVCA poll.
  • There has been plenty of success away from the volleyball courts: The men’s basketball team won its second Big West title in three seasons and got into the NCAA Tournament. The baseball team has been ranked this sesaon. The men’s indoor track and field team captured its seventh consecutive WAC title in February. The women’s basketball team won 21 games, the softball team is currently 28-5 and the women’s tennis team is the reigning WAC champion.

With this “new kid on the block” having so much success so quickly, it is easy to think there might be some jealousy — even resentment — among long-established universities and their teams. Nollan said that might be the case, but the school sees it as a badge of honor.

“No matter where you are or what you’re doing, people take a hard edge with success with whoever is having it, whether it’s in business or in academics or whatever it might be,” he said. “With this kind of renaissance as an athletic department as a whole, you’re going to have some universities that are like, ‘OK. We’re going to put a big circle around them on the calendar.’

“But that’s OK. If we’re getting that type of reaction, we’re, obviously, doing something right on our end to make them want to put a stop to us or outdo us or whatever.”

Ready to break out

Nollan came on board at a difficult time. The program would not be eligible for postseason competition for another two seasons as the athletic department completed the NCAA-mandated transition time to Division I, so that put him in a bit of an awkward position when it came to recruiting.

GCU women’s volleyball coach Tim Nollan

He had to recruit a lot of high school freshmen and sophomores, selling them on the program’s vision for six, seven years down the road. For high school juniors and seniors, they likely would have to be content with building the program’s Division I foundation, knowing there probably was no postseason in their future.

In 2019, all of that came to a head when the Antelopes — or “Lopes” as they are affectionately known around campus — went 24-6.

“The main thing we did, really, was change the culture and the expectation,” said Nollan, who spent nine seasons on the USC women’s staff with head coach Mick Haley, including five as associate head coach, before coming to GCU. “Our team expects to win. Our team expects to be elite in the classroom. And that was a process.”

In the three seasons since, including the pandemic-altered season of 2020-21, the Lopes have gone 48-22. This past fall, they reached the WAC semifinals and had three players named all-conference first team: grad-transfer outside hitter Melanie Brecka (who is from Lincoln, Nebraska and transferred from Kanss City), senior setter Klaire Mitchell (Coeur d’Alene, Idaho) and freshman outside hitter Tatum Parrott (Phoenix).

GCU setter Klaire Mitchell

It was Mitchell’s third consecutive season as an all-WAC first-teamer. She also holds the program assist record (3,270 and counting) and was invited to tryouts for the collegiate national team. Junior middle blocker Trista Strasser (Kyle, Texas, via Missouri) also was invited to the collegiate national team tryouts.

Mitchell, Parrott and Strasser return for 2023. Also among those returning will be senior outside Ashley Lifgren (Peoria, Arizona) and junior OH McKenzie Wise (Phoenix).

With his program now on solid ground and a growing reputation, Nollan said the Lopes are ready to go to the next level.

“The next step is winning the conference championship and getting the auto bid to the NCAA,” he said. “I don’t want to be just content getting there. I want to win a couple of NCAA games.

“I coached at USC for a long time, and we had a ton of success there. I didn’t come to GCU because I was done with that experience. I came to GCU because I thought we could replicate that type of experience.”

Enter sand women …

For the GCU beach program, its success is just beginning. And it is being fueled by last season’s ending.

GCU earned the program’s first NCAA Championship berth in 2022 after going 26-6. But the Lopes were unceremoniously dispatched by Georgia State 3-2 in the first round.

Grand Canyon had defeated Georgia State 4-1 in the regular season, and Hansen didn’t try to sugar coat the NCAA loss.

“I think we just kind of choked,” she said. “I think the pressure got to us. Obviously, we had never been there before. I don’t think we came in too cocky. We just choked. We just got nervous because we had such high expectations, and I think we kind of let those expectations take over us a little bit too much.”

Said Rohr: “I feel like we have some unfinished business. The athletes that were able to experience that last year feel the same way.”

Rohr said there is even more urgency to make a deep tournament run this season because several players who are in their “covid year” or redshirt year will be graduating. The group, she said, talks often about making more history for the program before they leave.

Grand Canyon is ranked No. 6 in the AVCA College Beach Coaches Poll. The Lopes (15-5) had won seven in a row before losing 3-2 this past Saturday at top-ranked TCU. 

After two losses in three matches – to No. 3 UCLA and No. 8 Loyola Marymount – on March 11-12, Rohr moved Abbie Hughes (5-foot-8 RS senior, Mason, Ohio) up from the No. 2 tandem to team with Hansen, and Allanis Navas was moved to Court 2 with Samaya Morin (6-0 sophomore, Lake Stevens, Washington).

Navas is a 5-foot-4 junior from Puerto Rico who has aspirations of competing for her country’s national team.

“Allanis is absolutely insane,” said Hansen, who went 28-4 playing No. 2 with Navas last season. “She is hands down the best partner I’ve ever played with. She’s just a freak athlete. For being 5-4 and touching almost higher than me (6-0) is just insane.”

Sophomore Jessica Drake (5-9, Fresno, Calif.), who was named to the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association preseason watch list despite redshirting last season. Others in the lineup include Krista Rowan (6-0 junior Chandler, Arizona), Anaya Evans (5-8 senior, Croyde, England), Dana Roskic (5-10 graduate, Toronto), Mackenzie Harris (5-8 senior, Murfreesboro, Tenn.) and Cami Sanchez (5-10 graduate, Huntington Beach).

There is a conference tournament to anticipate at the end – this is GCU’s first season in the CCSA – and, likely another berth in the NCAA Championship in early May in Gulf Shores, Alabama.

“Every time we’re stepping in the sand, we’re realizing, ‘Here’s something we need to go back and work on,’ ” Rohr said. “We’re never satisfied until we reach our ultimate goal.

“I’m really proud of the way we’ve started this season. I would be surprised if anyone has had a tougher schedule than us at the start of the season … So I’m hoping to continue to build on that.”

Added Hansen: “For us, it’s just taking one game at a time … We’ve got to think about what’s right in front of us. We don’t think too deep into the future. Winning the NCAA championship would be absolutely amazing, but that’s more in the future, and we have to focus on now and what is going to be beneficial for us now.”

Men in the NCAA mix

The GCU men’s volleyball team (21-2) is tied for fifth in the AVCA Men’s National Collegiate Coaches Poll. The Lopes were riding high before getting upset in five at Concordia last Friday, but bounced back by sweeping CUI the next day.

Their big challenge is this weekend, when they play host to No. 2 UCLA in back-to-back key MPSF matches.

“I wouldn’t say the national recognition has been a stresser or negative or anything,” said Gianni, a product of Carlsbad, California. “I would say it’s more of a motivator. Everyone is always arguing over who should be top-five. We just want to be able to go into the NCAA Tournament, go win the national championship and move forward with the program that way.”

Coach Matt Werle, who like Nollan was hired in 2016, has had to build his program in similar fashion: selling future hope to those who might not get to see the end product. Werle called Gianni’s class, which also includes standouts Christian Janke and Cole Udall, his first “real” recruiting class.

Werle’s teams had some success in his first three seasons, posting 17, 19 and 18 wins before going 52-46 over the past four seasons. But that was the build-up to this season’s explosion. The 20 wins already are a record for GCU’s Division-I era, and the Lopes will set a new standard with each win the rest of the season.

GCU coach Matt Werle and freshman Cameron Thorne

“Their freshman year, I was really proud of who we brought into this program in terms of character and also what I truly believe to be some very skillful athletes,” Werle said about Gianni’s class. “I threw them to the wolves their freshman year. That was probably one of our hardest schedules we have played, and I just wanted to make sure these guys were aware they were going to be able to compete.

“We might take some lumps along the way, but just teaching them their abilities were there and they had the skills. … Now they’re reaping all the benefits from five years later from that schedule.”

Added Gianni: “Being able to win the games we have this year against BYU and UC Irvine … UC Irvine was a big weekend for us where we started to understand where we were at nationally because we know UC Irvine has some talent, and they knocked off some pretty big teams.”

Rico Wardlow, junior middle blocker from Bolingbrook, Ill., via Purdue-Fort Wayne, leads the MPSF in hitting (.542), and Jackson Hickman (RS junior OH, Phoenix) is ninth at .367. Janke (RS senior OH, Carlsbad) ranks 10th in the MPSF in kills per set (2.28). Setter Nicholas Slight (RS sophomore, Storm Lake, Iowa) is second at 9.92 assists per set. Gianni leads with 36 aces, .61 per set.

Grand Canyon may had to win the MPSF Tournament, set for April 19-22 at Stanford, to get into the NCAA Tournament.

The Lopes, however, prefer to focus inward and let the accolades take care of themselves.

“I credit the entire team culture and the dynamics in practice and understanding the accountability within the entire team … to the majority of what we have accomplished on the court,” Gianni said. “Just being able to trust each other, trust in team roles, personal roles and understanding how everyone contributes to the team.

“Just from the bottom to the top, we all see each other as equals. No one throws any fingers at anyone and says, ‘It’s your fault.’ No one says anything negative.”

Werle said this year’s team should be more physically and mentally ready for a long postseason run. He said he believes over-aggressive scheduling last season contributed to the team running out of gas down the stretch. This year, he said, he tried to balance the schedule a little more so the Antelopes can be at full speed come mid-April.

“Our bodies got the best of us, and our minds got a little fatigued,” Werle said. “A lot of things have gone our way (this season), and, right now, these guys are finding ways to win being down 22-19 in a set.

“They make the plays when they need to make the plays, and they never question their abilities to finish it off when they need to take care of business.”

A future as bright as the Arizona sun

Grand Canyon’s volleyball programs have been able to appreciate each other’s success. The men’s team and beach team support the women’s team in the fall. The beach team and men’s team, Hansen said, are particularly tight because they share the same season.

“Our men’s program is absolutely kicking butt right now,” she said. “When we are home, because we have the same season, we always go to their games, and they always try to come to ours. We don’t have a lot of home games this year, which kind of sucks, but we always try to support them.”

The men’s and women’s teams also share a similar recruiting philosophy. Perhaps GCU hasn’t yet reached the stature that will allow them to snag top recruits, but they try for the next best thing: players who might not be blue-chip but have a chip on their shoulders because they believe they were overlooked by the traditional volleyball powers.

“The guys that we get are sometimes late developers or maybe a little bit undersized,” Werle said. “We know we’re always going to have an uphill battle against the histories of UCLA and USC and Long Beach State and Hawai’i … We’re doing our best to land some of these 2024 graduates while the fire is hot for us.

“We want those guys who are like, ‘Heck, yeah I’m going to go prove myself, that I am the best guy in the gym. I am the best guy on the court.’ Those are the guys we’re really trying to go after.”

Nollan, given the same question, gave an almost identical answer.

“I love taking a kid that’s always been told she’s not good enough to be with the elite of the elite. I like that kid because the first thing she is going to do is be like, ‘Oh, yeah? I’m going to show you.’ Those types of kids just work harder.”

Gianni said he recently was hanging out at one of the campus swimming pools and took note of yet another construction project in the works. Perhaps an appropriate metaphor for Grand Canyon athletics: shiny and new but still improving with the goal of being the best.

“We’re putting GCU on the map, and I think that’s super important,” Hansen said. “When I was in high school, I’d be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to GCU,’ and (people) were like, ‘Where is that? What school is that? Are they even ranked?’

“And now when I talk about GCU, everyone is like, ‘Oh, you guys are so good! Your program is awesome.’ It feels nice to be recognized … for people to finally know who we are.”

Abbie Hughes looks on as Allanis Navas digs/Photos courtesy of Grand Canyon

GCU, the ever-growing school in the desert, has volleyball programs on the rise Volleyballmag.com.

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