Molly Hilfinger, 1, sets the ball for teammate Julia Haupricht, 10, as Brittany Egbert, 14, runs in to assist.
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Ask some athletes how they made their college choice and they'll tell you they picked a place with a good climate. That can mean a lot more than what the weatherman talks about every day.
"When I looked around, Owens was a school that had a great tradition of winning in volleyball, good coaches, and it was also a place to get a good education," freshman setter Molly Hilfinger said. "After I met some of the players and saw how well everyone got along, I could tell it was a very positive environment here, too."
Hilfinger became part of an Owens team that would post a 45-5 record this season and win its 11th OCCAC championship in the past 12 years. The Express finished 12-0 in conference play and went to the National Junior College regional tournament in Grand Rapids, Mich., over the past weekend.
"You could tell right from the start, from the first time we got together in the spring, that this was going to be a very good team," Hilfinger said. "The standard here is very high."
Hilfinger, a pre-nursing major, is one of nine players on the Owens roster from the immediate Toledo area. She was a first-team All-Northern Lakes League selection at Anthony Wayne last year and a two-time team MVP, and she set the school record for the most assists in a career and in a season.
Said Owens coach Sonny Lewis, "Luckily for us, we're in a nice metropolitan area, and northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan are both very good in high school and club volleyball.
"We look for the players that want to stay close to home, and we go after the best of those kids. We rarely go more than an hour away to find very good players."
Ellie Comes from Southview, a defensive specialist, is the Owens career leader in digs, and middle blocker Brittany Egbert from Hopewell-Loudon was recently named conference player of the year.
Hilfinger said, "There's a lot of talent on this team, and because of that you have to be at your best every day. When you come in as a freshman, it makes you better just working to keep up. Everyone kind of pulls everyone else along, and the whole team keeps improving."
Lewis, who was recently honored as the conference coach of the year, said making the chemistry match the talent level is sometimes the more difficult task. This year's team has excelled in both areas.
"We always try and find good, personable kids, so when we are recruiting them we watch how they act, how they are around their teammates out on the court, and how they react to things," he said.
"With our group this year, they are all talented players, but it's also important how well they gel and how well they get along. We want kids who, when they're out there, they're not playing for themselves, they're playing for their teammates."
Hilfinger said the Express, ranked No. 4 nationally entering the regional tournament, has the right blend of personalities and performances.
"I felt welcome here right away, and since we're together so much in practice and games and on the road and off the court, it helps that everyone has a very positive attitude," she said.
"Every player makes a contribution every day, and you can really sense your teammates pulling for you. It's the perfect environment for us to be very successful, and I think that had a lot to do with us winning so many matches this year."
Contact Matt Markey at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6510 or on Twitter @MattMarkey