PERRYSBURG — 10 days ago, it would’ve been difficult for the Owens Community College volleyball team to reflect on its run to the national title match.
Owens honored the team Monday between its women’s and men’s home basketball games. The players brought out a national runner-up trophy and accepted applause from many of the same fans who watched the program’s unprecedented success. All of them wore team hoodies and gathered for pizza after the event.
No, the season didn’t end the way the Express envisioned: Coffeyville Community College handed Owens a 3-1 loss in the Division II national championship match on Nov. 18. They entered the postseason as the top-ranked junior college team in the country and won 40 consecutive matches going into the title game, but fell behind early against the Red Ravens and never caught up.
“It’s just kind of a shocker that it’s already over,” said Carrigan Gray, a sophomore setter. “It was nerves that really caught us, and then I think we were just playing a little timid. We just fell apart and we didn’t play how we normally played. It got away from us.”
The atmosphere post-match was certainly somber, but on Monday — the team’s first day back on campus since the loss — the players received praise everywhere. Professors stopped in the middle of their lectures and students shouted their congratulations from across the parking lot.
“A lot of people came up to me, and it was a lot of people I didn’t realize knew we had a volleyball program,” said sophomore middle blocker Devon Heitkamp. “It wasn’t the outcome that we wanted, but not a lot of teams can say they finished second in the nation. That’s the biggest thing right now.”
The loss may always sting, but what the team accomplished just may set the tone for the rising junior college program. Owens finished third in the nation last year and, after defeating Parkland in September, earned its first No. 1 National Junior College Athletic Association ranking in program history. The players and coaches are confident recruits will take notice.
Assistant coach Denny Caldwell’s golfing buddies recently bought him a t-shirt with an Owens logo and a bullseye on the front. Now in his 10th year with the team — head coach Sonny Lewis just finished his 17th — Caldwell often hands recruits a list of questions to jumpstart conversations between potential newcomers and the current players.
“My favorite question I have the kids ask is, ‘Do you regret coming here?’ The thing is, our players regret having to leave,” Caldwell said. “A lot of times players will come back and say, ‘Well, we aren’t having as much fun as we did at Owens.’ ”
Caldwell described the team’s culture as “the Owens volleyball family.” The team had post-match tailgates, team movie nights (recent flick “Girls Trip” was a favorite), and shopping trips.
“If you want to gain 13 new best friends, then come here,” said Erika Angstmann, a sophomore outside hitter. “These girls I hang out with more than my friends back home. It’s just a great family here.”
Beyond the players themselves, two sets of grandparents even traveled with Owens for nearly all of its 41 matches. Family members soaked in the whole season, including a late dinner at the team’s hotel following its disheartening loss to Coffeyville. As Caldwell remembers it, the team slapped on fake smiles for a group picture, then shared a relatively quiet and distant dinner. He texted all the players the next morning, reminding them of their record-setting accomplishments and that plenty of other teams envy how far they reached.
“At the moment, it was hard to see the big picture,” Angtsmann said. “You don’t want to end that way ever: be undefeated and lose the last game. But after I’ve processed it a little bit... it’s something to be proud of. You can’t hang your head just because you came out on a bad note.”
Contact Jimmy Miller at firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6050, or on Twitter @miller_jimmy.
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