Washburn volleyball reflects on their striking season


Courtesy of Joy Smith, Washburn Sports Information Department

The 2021 Volleyball team stands in front an inflatable version of the famous NCAA trophy in Tampa, Florida. The Lady Blues finished runners-up of the NCAA-II National Tournament.

On a chilly day in December, the Washburn Volleyball team returned to a hero’s welcome outside Lee Arena to celebrate their historic season.

In a way, this season started decades ago when Washburn volleyball head coach Chris Herron first started coaching.

He didn’t really start out as a volleyball coach, but more as a high school volleyball team’s coach.

“I started hearing about this club stuff and I wanted to learn, and I wanted to be around people that knew more about volleyball than I did,” Herron said. “So, I called the HOA, Heart of America office, and asked about it. They told me who to call to get more information. I just stuck my nose into volunteering.”

Ever since coming to Washburn in 2002, Herron has master-minded an instant and steady rise in results, from winning the MIAA Conference for the first time in school history, to the National Championship game this past December.

As a prolific coach with humble origins, respect is something synonymous with Coach Herron in the volleyball world.

“You have to earn that with him. You can’t just come in here and start piping up,” said Faith Rottinghaus, senior libero.

One of the most pivotal moments of the 2021 season was Nov. 19, after exiting the post-season conference tournament in the semifinals. Thanks to holding a No. 1 NCAA-II ranking (for the first time in school history), the Lady Blues were a shoe-in for a favorable seed in the NCAA-II regionals. But it would be win or go home from here on out.

“When we lost to Northwest the last time that we played them, I could have walked in the locker room and raised Cain and got on them and been upset with them,” Herron said. “All I did was walk in there and say, here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to make a new goal. Our new goal is we’re not going to lose our last match.”

For a close team made mostly of seniors, they were used to rallying around each other.

“It’s such a cliche. You take one game at a time. Well, we were taking one point at a time,” Herron said. “We just literally said, this point is important, and then as soon as it’s over, it’s no longer important. The next one is. Then we got hot.”

At the net, senior outside hitter Genna Berg led kills, and senior middle hitter Allison Maxwell led blocks, reinforced by the trio of senior middle blocker Sydney Fitzgibbons, senior middle hitter Kelsey Gordon and freshman outside hitter Jalyn Stevenson.

“I couldn’t have imagined my college experience without this group of girls,” Rottinghaus said. “How cool is it that we love who we get to play with on the court and while we’re traveling.”

Senior setter Allison Sadler consistently provided assists, and so many points were kept alive by Rottinghaus, who set a school alumni record in digs (2676).

“What makes Faith so special is she’s got a great court awareness about her and great anticipatory skills,” Herron said. “She’s fearless. Any ball, she’s going to go get it, and we all trust her to do that. I’m so upset that she’s not back next year. She’s a pretty special person and a special player, obviously. But whatever she is as a player, she’s an even better person.”

Maxwell also mentioned Rottinghaus’s commitment and determination to the team.

“She never gives up and goes after every ball. She’s the most internally motivated person I’ve ever met,” Maxwell said. “She’s literally the greatest libero I’ve ever played with.”

Dec. 4, the team won the central region and booked their plane tickets to Tampa, Florida for the last stage of the NCAA-II National Championship.

“When you’re in Florida, everybody thinks you’re going to get a suntan and all that other stuff. We made it pretty clear that that wasn’t going to happen, and that we were down there to take care of the business at hand,” Herron said. “Our kids knew that and I didn’t really have to say that, but the outside world thinks that though. Everybody thinks you’re going to go lay on the beach and have a good time.”

The Lady Blues took care of business and made it to their definitive last game together no matter what. After three narrow sets lost Dec. 11 to the University of Tampa, the team and the seniors bowed out.

Notable statistics going into the Washburn annals this year for alumni totals are Sadler for 3,709 assists (5th); Berg with 1,509 kills (4th); and Maxwell’s 455 blocks (5th).

This January, Allison Maxwell signed with a pro agency courting offers from various clubs in Europe and the Mediterranean. This was something she didn’t imagine in the fourth grade when she picked up volleyball on a whim.

Faith Rottinghaus was named to the 2021 College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-American Team, a prestigious honor, and will continue studying kinesiology.

The next goal for coach Herron and the volleyball team in 2022, with 10 seniors leaving, will have to come with some realistic perspectives.

“When you lose ten players, and not just ten players but ten really good players, the expectation to be the same as it was for next year is foolish,” Herron said. “That’s trying to use the kindest words I can. It’s not even in the realm of possibility.”

Coaches Herron, Shaylor Conner, Michael Jueneman and Danielle Wellborn look ahead to set a new foundation for the next three and four years.

“To be honest with you, I’m really excited about the fact that I get to teach more,” Herron said. “Whereas, the last few years, those kids had been there, done that. So, it’s really going to be, for me, a lot of fun that I get to teach all the new players what I want to teach them.”

Edited by Ellie Walker, Katrina Johnson