UNIVERSITY PARK, IL – Competitive volleyball programs in the NAIA aren't built overnight, but the Governors State Jaguars made great strides during the 2016 season to put its name in the conversation.
Taking part in just their second varsity season, the Jaguars were faced with integrating a recruiting class for the first time, taking instruction from a new coaching staff, and finding their way through a new conference affiliation.
The result was a 12-24 record overall — 10 more wins than the inaugural 2015 season. Two of the wins occurred against NCAA Division III teams Wilmington (OH) and Concordia (IL). The Jaguars also won three matches as the newest member of the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference (CCAC). GSU finished sixth in the CCAC South Division, ahead of Calumet St. Joseph, a team they defeated twice.
"We were a young squad that got battle-tested as the season wore on," said first-year Head Coach Pedro Gonzalez, who coached six seasons at the NCAA Division I level. "If we learned anything this season it was that we could be a competitive team in the conference."
GSU's recorded its first CCAC victory on October 4, defeating Calumet in Whiting, Ind. The Jaguars compiled a season-high .466 attack percentage as Ashley Pickert dominated the middle with a .684 hitting percentage (14 kills on 19 attempts). The victory came on the tail end of a hot streak that saw Governors State win six of eight matches, including three straight.
GSU also turned in a memorable victory at IU Northwest on September 22, winning a five-set match by the scores 22-25, 25-14, 25-19, 22-25, 15-13. The triumph occurred just six days after GSU defeated its biggest rival at the Manchester Invitational. GSU completed a season sweep (3-0) of the RedHawks, extending their series win streak to five matches. "It's a rivalry in which both schools push each other to get better," stated Gonzalez.
The Manchester Invitational was one of three in-season tournaments the Jaguars took part in. GSU posted the second-best record (3-1) in the five-team field at Manchester with Pickert earning one of six spots (out of 57 competing players) on the all-tournament team.
At the Crimson Wave Invitational, GSU recorded the second-best record (3-1) among seven participating teams. On the first day of competition, Pickert hammered a school-record 19 kills in a four-set win over William Penn.
The Aquinas/Cornerstone Classic in Grand Rapids, Michigan saw Hayley Wacker (first team) and Pickert (second team) received all-tournament honors.
The Orange and Black played an unforgiving schedule that included just eight home dates with the remaining 28 matches contested either on the road or at neutral sites. Three of the teams GSU faced qualified for the NAIA National Tournament — Cornerstone (MI), IU South Bend and St. Francis. In addition, Trinity International captured the National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA) national championship while Saint Mary-of-the-Woods advanced to the championship match of the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA).
Academic accolades were also bestowed on GSU. Five team members earned CCAC All-Academic Team honors: Erika Halverson, Briana Holden, Ashley Pickert, Savik Salgado and Wacker. In addition, Salgado and Wacker were recognized as NAIA-Daktronics Scholar-Athletes.
"I though our season was very productive and that we improved, even if our record didn't show that," said co-captain Wacker. "The new players and the returners meshed well and we really worked together. The coaches did a good job of building us up."
Senior night honored five seniors making their final appearance at The ARC. With preparations beginning for the 2017 season, Pickert announced she was returning to school as a graduate student, giving her another year of eligibility. Senior setters Lizette Gonzalez and Salgado mentioned similar aspirations, giving the Jaguars three unexpected holdovers from the 2016 season — showing the group's desire to be part of an emerging program.
"The senior class was the glue that held our team together," said Gonzalez. "They brought the maturity, experience and leadership skills that you look for in a class, leading by example."