“We lost the championship game by three points and that gave us the extra drive we needed all spring,” senior Keelie Arneson said. “We were constantly reminded of those three points. It has given us the extra drive to lift harder and run faster.”
Not lost in the heartbreaking finish was the acknowledgement of the program’s growth. A season ago, NSU finished with its highest RPI in school history placing the Lady Demons ahead of major programs like Wake Forest, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Houston, Rice and others.
Fifth-year head coach Hugh Hernesman and his staff have embraced playing non-conference marquee program’s and this season will be no different with the likes of Auburn, Baylor, Memphis and Mississippi State all scheduled in September.
“We don’t shy away from that competition. Our players have played against these players all throughout club so I don’t think anyone of them will back down to these schools,” said Hernesman. “In the past, we’ve taken the approach that these are pre-season scrimmages to see where we’re at but this year we’re going to be at a new level and we’re going to try to knock off some of these teams.”
Arneson, Northwestern State’s first-ever Southland Conference Libero of the Year award winner a year ago, echoed the same belief.
“The thing that stands out to me the most is our confidence,” Arneson said. “If we would have played against those teams three or four years ago our faces would have looked beat before we got on the court. Our group as a whole has gotten a lot more talented. We’re bigger, faster, stronger and we’re all just better players together.”
In the offseason, the Lady Demons were active on and off the court including seniors Mackenzie Neely and Emily Johnson who went on mission trips. Neely’s journeys included two trips to Haiti as well as a week in Tanzania over the last year.
“It is something that really changed my life,” Neely said. “It’s difficult to talk about because I saw a lot of different things that you can’t put into words unless you’ve been there. It was a great thing for me and E.J. as well.”
NSU was busy in the classroom too, posting a 3.61 team GPA this past spring and 3.47 GPA overall on the way to receiving their third straight AVCA Team Academic Award.
“I’m excited that we do this with outstanding student-athletes as well,” Hernesman said. “This past spring we didn’t have anyone below a 3.0 and had three athletes with perfect 4.0’s. We’re doing this with some real talented players with real high character.”
In attendance at the Fall Sports Media Day included all five seniors and redshirt junior Caiti O’Connell, a group Hernesman praised for their ability to take a chance on Northwestern State and ultimately ended up turning the program around.
“They basically had to buy into a vision and really take a leap of faith,” Hernesman said. “The season before us had three wins and a 290 RPI. Last year, we finished in the top 100. There are two schools during that time who have improved in RPI more; two out of 330 Division I schools.”
With two consecutive seasons of 20 or more wins, a first-ever season sweep of Stephen F. Austin and an establishment of a recognizable name in the volleyball community, there is just one step remaining.
“A conference ring would be amazing,” senior Stacey DiFrancesco said. “It’s my last season and we’ve worked extremely hard since we were freshman. We’ve come such a long way; I’d be disappointed if we got anything else but a ring.”