BLUFFTON — Separated by maybe 20 minutes, Bluffton University has always had a barometer of volleyball success not too far away at Ohio Northern. And for about a decade, the Beavers always fell short of the mark.
That changed last Tuesday, when the Beavers beat nationally-ranked Northern 3-2 for their first win in the series since 1998. For a Bluffton team that finished 27-6 last year and advanced to its fourth NCAA tournament, and first since 1997, the win over a rival like the Polar Bears has been the topper on a 12-3 start.
“We had six losses last year, and three of them were to Northern, including the one in the NCAA tournament,” Bluffton coach Steve Yarnell said. “They’re a top-10, top-25 team every year. … They don’t lose very often, especially at home, so that’s big from a regional ranking perspective.
“With wins over them and Thomas More already, who made the NCAA tournament last year … those are two big wins.”
Yarnell felt as though the Beavers needed a stronger schedule outside of their Great Lakes Region to duplicate a run to the NCAA tournament and prepare them for it, so he scheduled aggressively this season.
They returned from a trip to the Luther College Tournament in Iowa on Sunday, where the Beavers went 2-2. One of their losses was to No. 14 St. Thomas (St. Paul, Minnesota), and while a loss hurts, Yarnell hopes people recognize Bluffton’s willingness to play the top teams in the nation.
Yarnell brings up a college football comparision in terms of Boise State and the BCS, needing to play an ambitious schedule to get noticed and prove worth.
“When we made the tournament last year, my eyes were opened when we had a meeting with the coaches, and the teams that were there consistently played each other,” Yarnell said. “People looked at our schedule (last year) and said, ‘Well, you don’t play anybody. You went 26-5 in the regular season, got beat by Northern twice, you didn’t put yourself up against other teams.’”
Junior outside hitter Jenna Eshleman was named Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference player of the week after coming up with 58 kills, 52 digs, two solo blocks. Against Northern, she had 19 kills and 14 digs.
Eshleman has 127 kills and 160 digs. Junior middle hitter Courtney Zimmerman has 136 kills and 38 blocks, and senior setter Shauna Rowland has 488 assists. Sophomore Heather Schierer has 36 aces.
The Beavers won their first HCAC tournament last year along with the regular season title. They start their conference schedule Wednesday at Founders Hall against Mount St. Joseph.
Bluffton was picked as the unanimous HCAC favorite before the season started, and now is the time for the proof.
“The pressure is there,” Yarnell said. “That’s what they are, on paper, that the pieces are there to do it. … The college level, the team with the better talent wins nine times out of 10. When the teams are even, that’s when coaching comes into play. It’s not the X’s and the O’s, we’ve got some good athletes here.”