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Witte, young Polar Bears venture onto national stage

Freshman McKenna Hostetler (left) and junior Megan Nieszala (right) celebrate after a point during Saturday's OAC tournament final win over Heidelberg. (photo/ ONU Sports Information)

For Kate Witte, this weekend is a return to the promised land.

Ohio Northern’s head volleyball coach, now in her 26th year at the helm, has made it to the NCAA tournament 20 times, including a stretch of 11 straight appearances from 2000-2010. She has been to ten Sweet 16’s, four Elite Eight’s and one Final Four.

But her Polar Bears have made just one national tournament appearance in the last five years, when they were bounced by Wittenberg in the first round in 2012.

Following a 2016 campaign where Northern won the OAC regular season and tournament for the first time since 2008 (the year ONU went to the Final Four), Witte’s Bears are back in the NCAA tournament as a three-seed in the competitive Great Lakes Region.

It’s been a long wait for Witte, but one worthwhile.

“People think that those who win -- like, fortunately, my program -- just take it for granted that we’re going to win the conference and win the tournament and get to the NCAAs [every year]. It’s really hard to do,” Witte said. “And I think it’s been a self-reflective thing for me.”

“I think I realized just how well we did it for so long, and how hard that was. Once you’re at the top, you’re eventually going to fall, and it’s hard to remain there and not get complacent. But when you get back up there, you realize how much work it took, after five years of not being there.”

Not only did Northern get back to the top of the OAC this season; they did it in dominant fashion.

The Bears went undefeated in the conference for the first time since that magical 2008 season, losing just four sets in twelve total OAC matches this season. They have won 19 straight matches, dating back to September 17, when they last lost to 14th-ranked Carnegie Mellon in an intense five-set bout.

Northern capped off their 27-3 regular season with an OAC tournament championship on Saturday, a dramatic five-set triumph over Heidelberg at King Horn. The Bears finally knocked off the Student Princes, who beat them in five sets in last year’s OAC tournament final and dashed their national tournament hopes. Heidelberg had also won five of the last seven OAC regular season titles, although Northern halted that theme this season as well.

“Holding that trophy on Saturday was such a great feeling,” senior setter Ashley Borchers said. “We have worked so hard for this for many years and for that to show and be on top of the OAC is such a great accomplishment.”

Borchers was named Co-Player of the Year in the OAC, while six other Polar Bears received all-conference honors. While Northern was anchored by Borchers and the team’s seven upperclassmen, the play of their eight freshmen (four of whom start) is what pushed Northern to the next level this season.

Freshmen Chelsea Huppert and McKenna Jordan, who are second and third respectively on the team in kills, were named Honorable Mention in the conference. Freshman McKenna Hostetler is second on the team in digs and proved to be a vital defensive piece to this year’s team, while outside hitters Sydney Bapst and Sydney Fecko were both valuable offensive players for the Bears.

“At first, you always have the fear of the freshmen not being ready for the speed of the game,” junior middle hitter Haley Potters, who led the team in kills, said. “But after the first few games, you learned to trust them… I have no doubt in their ability; they act like they’re not freshmen, they act like they’re upperclassmen.”

Witte believes that the youth of this year’s team has given them an edge.

“People truly thought, ‘You’re too young, you’re not going to do it this year. Maybe next year, when they’re all sophomores,’” Witte said. “I think there is an edge, a little chip on our shoulders. I think we outdistanced what people expected we could achieve or perform, and I think that started with our seven upperclassmen, who embraced the underclassmen in being successful.”

This team’s inexperience provides a unique challenge for Witte as she heads into her 20th NCAA tournament.

“I’ve gone 19 times, and this is probably the most inexperienced team I’ve ever taken,” Witte said.

The young Polar Bears, ranked 22nd nationally, will be tested early in this year’s tournament. They will face Millikin (IL) in the first round on Thursday afternoon and will be competing this weekend in the Great Lakes Region, which has housed four of the last six national champions and two national runner-ups during that period.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” Witte said. “Being the third seed puts us in good position, but our first round match is going to be very difficult. Millikin is a very good team, and unusually tough for a six-seed. We’re going to have our hands full.”

This will be the first time on the national stage for this Northern team, as the program’s last tournament appearance was in 2012.

But the Bears are back; back on top, and back where they belong.

“It’s really exciting because we heard how great it was to be a part of that tradition from the coaches, and to finally be a part of the tradition starting again, it’s really exciting,” Potters said. “We’re finally at that level again.”