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Apr. 10—The 2020-21 Dakota Wesleyan volleyball season is what Lindsay Wilber calls an “up-and-down season.”

The seventh-year coach for Tigers faced a pandemic and the birth of the coach’s daughter just four games into the season.

“I had no idea it was gonna be like this. I did not see it coming. I thought (last year) was going to be the year that we were going to break through, and we didn’t,” Wilber said. “This year, I was kind of like with the COVID and then having a baby … I was like, ‘Whatever happens, happens.’

As the 12-9 Tigers wait to hear Monday if they will advance to the NAIA postseason tournament for just the second time in school history. Wilber acknowledges that the year’s success is icing on a cake that’s taken time to bake for the team that last saw that level of action in 1990.

Last summer, the NAIA moved this year’s national tournament to the spring and reduced the number of teams to 48 from the traditional 64 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, similar to the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments this past winter.

“It’s kind of stressful — I’m not feeling great about it, so we’ll see,” Wilber said. “That would have been great (if they’d allowed 64 teams). Just knowing that you would probably get in and having that reassurance is way better. … But I also have never been in this position. So I don’t really know how to feel.”

The GPAC currently features five teams ranked in the top 25, including No. 1 Jamestown, in the latest poll, released April 7.

“Coach Wilber is doing a great job of moving the program in the right direction,” said sophomore Mackenzie Miller. “Just us working hard for each other and for the team receiving votes nationally is a big accomplishment. Hopefully we can turn that into a game in the national tournament.”

An unexpected journey

When Wilber took over the Dakota Wesleyan University volleyball program in 2014, she never had plans to stick around.

Having moved to Mitchell when her husband Matt Wilber accepted the DWU men’s basketball coaching job, Wilber spent that year as a teacher with the Ethan School District.

Four months into her husband’s stint as the men’s coach, however, Lindsay was asked to fill the volleyball coaching vacancy.

“They weren’t getting applicants that they really wanted,” she said. “I didn’t want to be a college coach. This was not my dream — like this was not my life dream. My initial goal was to get the culture right and then find someone else that maybe was a little bit more strategic about volleyball. Because I just knew how to play and what makes a good team. I’m not the greatest at the strategic part.”

Success has been a work-in-progress for the Tigers, but under the direction of the Lakefield, Minn., native, they have excelled. They finished the regular season 12-8, went 8-8 in the conference and qualified as the sixth seed for the Great Plains Athletic Conference postseason tournament for the first time in 21 years with the GPAC after missing out by one match the previous two seasons.

Last weekend, the Tigers fell to third-seeded Concordia in a GPAC quarterfnal match that was months in the making after the end of the fall season. The Tigers were without GPAC Freshman of the Year Ady Dwight, who injured her foot during a scrimmage last month.

A long road

In 2012 and 2013, the Tigers finished their seasons with 7-27 and 7-28 records, respectively.

In her first year, Wilber went 8-21 and, by her third season, had led the Tigers to their first winning season since 1993 with a record of 18-14. Wilber credits the group of then-young players at the beginning sticking with her to help the Tigers snap the 22-year losing record streak.

Then, in 2019, DWU finished 20-12. It was their first 20-win season since ’93. But they missed out on the GPAC postseason tournament by one match.

When Wilber first took over the program, she openly admits she didn’t realize how much work would go into making the Tigers competitive in the conference.

“When I took over the program, there were only about 13 kids left, and a lot of them didn’t have a lot of experience,” she said. “Because I played NCAA, I didn’t know that NAIA volleyball was this good. I thought you could just walk in here and start winning. That’s obviously not the case — there’s no night off in the GPAC.”

During her own collegiate career, Wilber led Augustana College to the NCAA Division II National Championship match in 2000. She earned first-team All-American honors as a junior and senior and was a second-team selection her sophomore year and was inducted into Augustana’s athletic hall of fame in 2013.

Knowing how tough the GPAC was, Wilber purposefully scheduled non-conference matches against teams she knew the Tigers would match up well against in an effort to get some wins and build her team’s confidence.

“Those first couple years, although I loved every single one of those kids on my team, there were a lot of tears from Coach Wilber,” she said. “It was tough. … I wasn’t used to losing. It is a mental thing — losing is tough. … Someone once told me it took eight years to turn a program around, they are so right, because this was my seventh year.”

In the beginning, Wilber said the program didn’t have much respect with other schools and even within the Mitchell community, drawing just a handful of fans for each match. Now, in a non-COVID-impacted season, crowds climb into the hundreds.

“I knew that I wanted to play, but I didn’t want to go to a school where I would just go to practice and sit on the bench. I wanted to get something out of it and play,” sophomore Danielle Burns said. “I think coming here, I was like, I have that opportunity. And (Wilber) communicated that to me. I was like, ‘I’ll get my chances here.’ So I gave (DWU) a shot.”

Wilber said she does her best to get to know her recruits by meeting with them several times before their first practice, so they feel like they’re a part of the Tiger family.

“We’re all one family, and there’s people on your team or family that are more annoying than others or more bossy, and that’s going to happen, but we put up with everyone and stuff,” she said. “This group is the most blended group I’ve had. They really enjoy playing with each other. They’ll snark at each other sometimes, and we talk about that, and that’s okay, because siblings fight, too.”

Wilber often receives highlight videos for players who are high school standouts but not necessarily be able to make the jump to the college level. Being up-front about that with players, has helped her build strong teams that can find success on the court and attract players.

“Last year — my 2020 class — I lost one recruit that I really wanted. Now in this 2021 class, same boat, same thing,” she said.

That 2020 class included Dwight, who acknowledged the family aspect of the team as a major factor in her decision to become a Tiger.

“They just looked like a close-knit family, and they all got along super well. I enjoyed that and enjoyed playing with them when I was here,” Dwight said. “I think that’s what helps build our chemistry on and off the court. … We just look after each other in every aspect.”

A little Tiger joins the team

Following the 2019 season, Wilber informed the team she and Matt were welcoming their first daughter and fifth child, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Wilber, to the family, come the fall of 2020.

For a time, Wilber said she wasn’t sure she’d be able to keep coaching with a new baby, but she persisted.

Four matches into the start of the season, Lizzie was born on Friday, Sept. 11, causing Wilber to miss the Tigers’ match at Briar Cliff the following day.

“We see her every single day, and she could not come to one game against Briar Cliff and we were all like, ‘Oh, my goodness, what are we going to do?'” DeLange said.

Still hospitalized, Wilber watched the game with her husband, texting assistant coach Katrina Talley adjustments and personnel changes throughout the match.

“We were both pacing, and the nurses were like, ‘What’s going on, guys?'” she recalled. “They don’t understand that a college coach is invested. So, yeah, I was totally texting them.”

By the Tigers’ next match a week later at Morningside, Wilber was back to coaching on the sidelines.

“My plan was to miss two games, but we played so horrible the game I missed, that I was like, ‘No way.’ So I was there a week after” (Lizzy was born), Wilber said. “That was really difficult, though, just because it was at Morningside. Matt and I and (our son) Tyson and Lizzie drove there. So she’s a week old. It’s hard to kind of focus, but then we kicked the crap out of them. … I think that they were happy that I was there.”

When Wilber first took over the volleyball program, her second youngest, Tyson was 10 months old, so balancing a young child and coaching duties wasn’t new for her. Seven years later, the Wilber family has deeper connections with the community, so their babysitter list is longer. And the team’s littlest cheerleader has been another boost to the Tiger family.

“We love Lizzie. Oh my goodness. We adore her,” DeLange said. “She has honestly been just another positive aspect to this whole season. Looking back, this is going to be a season to remember.”

Climbing the hill

In 2019, a senior-heavy class led by Yankton native Becky Frick, who was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American honorable mention team, the Tigers had yet to qualify for the postseason tournament.

With Frick, who finished second on the all-time kills list for DWU, and fellow seniors Emily Brunsing, Mallory Cooper, Brittany Bergquist and Sydney Fritz this past season was expected to be a rebuilding year. But Wilber said this year’s team has pleasantly surprised her.

“And I’m like, ‘Whoa, we’re actually kind of good. We’re pretty good!’ And we’re young, and so we’ll just keep getting better. That’s just what’s going to happen,” she said.

Seeing how close the 2019 team came to making the postseason was that much more incentive for those players returning.

“I know (the seniors) really wanted it,” said Mitchell native Mackenzie Miller. “I think it just pushed us more forward this year to keep working hard.”

Those new to the team this year didn’t know what to expect, but, for others, this year’s success wasn’t as big of a surprise.

“I knew right away that this is going to be an exciting year,” DeLange said. “As a sophomore last year, I had heard (about) some of the recruits that were coming in, and I was stoked for this season. I knew right away. I was like, ‘You know what — 2020-2021 season is gonna be a good season. Whoever’s saying it’s rebuilding year, I think we are going to thrive in that season.'”

“You know, it’s been a hill that I’ve had to climb, and now I feel like I’ve climbed the hill. And now … we can just keep cooking,'” Wilber said. “We’ll have maybe a few up-and-down years, but we’ll stay right in the middle of the pack or at the top of the pack. That’s how I feel now about us.”

Part of the reason Wilber feels much more confident about where the program is headed is from looking back on where it started.

“Even the drills we can do now on the court and in practice — drills I used to try to do when we first started (seven years ago) that we couldn’t complete — now we complete them the first time we do them,” she said.