“We have so many weapons that it’s going to take someone very, very special to take us down,” Dayton senior Samantha Selsky said. “We have a lot of getting better to do and that’s really exciting. We know we’re really good now and there are a lot of things we can get better at. That’s nice to know and makes us confident that come postseason we’re going to be one of the biggest threats in the country.”
OK, you can admit it: Unless you’ve really been paying attention, when you think of big-time college volleyball the University of Dayton simply doesn’t come to mind.
Or didn’t until now, since the Flyers have everyone’s attention after winning two season-opening tournaments and reaching their highest ranking ever in the AVCA national poll.
Not that Dayton wasn’t worthy of lofty status to begin with—the Flyers have won 20 matches or more the past 11 seasons and been to the NCAA Tournament eight of the last nine years—but the ascent to the spotlight is marked with a timeline that includes such things as a 6-foot-4 middle switching to outside hitter and then attending a libero camp to improve her defense.
And speaking of defense, Selsky, the setter from California, recalling her wake-up moment, when coach Kelly Sheffield called her out and let her know that “We play defense in the Midwest, Selsky!”
And so they do.
Not only is Selsky second on the team in digs, freshman libero Janna Krafka was the MVP of Dayton’s Flyer Classic that saw Dayton avenge two big defeats from last year by knocking off then-No. 7 Illinois and then-No. 12 Pepperdine in the season’s first weekend of play. Suddenly the previously unranked Flyers catapulted into 11th spot in the second AVCA poll of the season (they’d never been higher than 12th) and 12th in the VBM media poll.
Now, after winning three matches last weekend at Missouri State, they’re ranked 10th, a lofty place for a program that seems to stay under the radar despite pretty much dominating the Atlantic 10 the past decade.
Sheffield has put together a tough pre-conference schedule for a team that lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year to Kentucky, 16-14 in a fifth game that Dayton led 14-11. To add to that sting, the Flyers were 25-7 in 2011 with five of those defeats coming in five sets, including those losses to Illinois and Pepperdine. Dayton also lost to eventual Final Four participant Florida State and Southeastern Conference champion Tennessee.
“We were knocking on the door a lot,” the fifth-year coach said.
The knocks will have to get harder. This coming weekend the Flyers play in a tournament at Western Kentucky, opening with perennial power Ohio State, one spot out of the Top 25. Then the next weekend, they go to a tournament at Tulsa and open with 14th-ranked Minnesota and then play No. 22 Kansas State. Accordingly, Sheffield says, and his players repeat the mantra, that Dayton is taking it one day and one match at a time.
Rachel Krabacher, the senior who was the tallest player at that libero camp a couple of years ago, likes his train analogy.
“He says that every game we have is a stop on the train,” she said. “And we have to keep going whether we win that game or whether we lose that game. We have places we have to be and it’s one day at a time for us right now.”
Dayton started getting good in the latter part of the last decade under then coach Pete Hoyer, now the coach at N.C. State. In 2003, Tim Horsman, now the coach at Maryland, took over and immediately the Flyers took the next step. In his first year, they made to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. After first-round losses in 2004 and 2005 and missing the tournament in 2006, they made it to the second round again in 2007. That’s when Sheffield, a product of Ball State who had great success in seven seasons at Albany, took over.
“This has been a good program for a while,” Sheffield said of a school (957-537 overall) that has had 17 consecutive winning seasons.
In 2008, despite a squad decimated by injuries, Dayton made it to NCAA Tournament. In 2009 Dayton went out in the first round again, but it was the following spring that everything changed.
On April 1, 2010, starting setter Kacie Hausfield, just 21, died in a plane crash that also took the life of her father, Tom, the pilot. What’s more, the backup setter had transferred. It began a process that set the stage for Selsky down the line.
Jessica Yanz, now Dayton’s director of volleyball operations, spent the first two years of her career at Penn State before transferring to Nebraska. She played two seasons there but still had a year of eligibility remaining.
At the same time, Selsky finished her redshirt-freshman season at Santa Clara.
“I was just real unhappy. I knew I could be a better player and I knew I wasn’t going to be that player at Santa Clara,” Selsky said. “It was a long time coming, but I woke up one morning and I called my dad and told him I was quitting that day and was going to transfer and that I needed to start over...It wasn’t the fault of anyone. It just wasn’t a good fit.”
So Yanz and Selsky both became Flyers, which couldn’t have worked out better for Sheffield. It allowed Selsky time to transition, while Yanz had a 2010 season in which she was the A-10 setter of the year, earned All-American honorable mention and saw Dayton knock off Butler in the first round of the NCAA Tournament before going down 0-2 but losing in five sets to Ohio State, 16-14 in the fifth.
While Yanz was running the show, Selsky, the 5-10 product of the most athletic family you could ever imagine, was a work in progress.
Father Steve played minor-league baseball for the Dodgers and White Sox organizations. Mother Lou Ann was not only a member of the undefeated 1973 NCAA-champion Cal State Long Beach team, she remains heavily involved in club volleyball and was Samantha’s connection to Dayton, because, as Samantha said, “I didn’t even know what Dayton was until I decided to transfer.”
Samantha has a twin brother, Steve Jr., who played baseball at Arizona and is now at Class A Bakersfield in the Cincinnati Reds organization. And their older sister, Stesha, was the all-time digs leader at Michigan.
Not that any of that seemed to help Samantha after she got to Dayton.
“She was just really rough,” Sheffield said. “She was going into her third year of college and she just wasn’t any good. I told her, ‘Hey, you want to be a coach and you want to play, this is your time. If not now, when? It’s time for you to get serious and see what you can do.’ And I don’t know if I’ve ever had a player that’s re-done their body and their mind over a summer like Sam Selsky did. She absolutely committed herself to being really good.”
None of that was lost on Selsky, who played in just seven matches in 2010.
“It was rough at first,” she admitted. “There were a lot of bad habits I had. I wasn’t the hardest worker, I had a lot of bad setting habits that coach wanted to change and apparently I didn’t play very good defense, because he liked to tell me that people in the Midwest play defense. Our first or second practice that year in the preseason he yelled, ‘We play defense in the Midwest, Selsky!’ The first year I learned a lot, but it was exactly what I needed. I felt like a freshman all over again. I kind of re-found the passion I had coming into my senior year of high school. It was the best thing that ever happened.”
Sheffield was impressed.
“She came out last year and had a whale of a season and was as improved of a player as any I’ve ever been around and it was just her making the decision to be extraordinary. Before that I think she was playing the California cool. I joked around with her and said, ‘You’re in the Midwest now. It’s time to get tough.’ And she has. Now, in her fifth year, she’s kept that hunger. It’s been nice to see.”
Others recognized that, too.
While 6’1” middle blocker Megan Campbell made third-team AVCA All-American, Selsky and Krabacher were given honorable mention.
Campbell, from nearby Versailles, Ohio, was only one of two players in the nation last season to rank in the top 15 in hitting percentage (.412) and blocks per set (1.43).
Krabacher, from Cincinnati, was the A-10 player of the year, the seventh Flyer in nine years to earn that honor after leading the league in kills.
“She’s our chief,” said Selsky of Krabacher.
“The first couple of years, she was a kid who could hit the ball and that was about it,” the coach quipped. He credits Krabacher’s offseason work, which included an overseas volleyball tour, getting to play in the USA Volleyball A2 program, and that stint at the Sports Performance libero camp, for her development.
“I was a middle in high school,” Krabacher said, “and I’m sure people wouldn’t have thought I’d be a six-rotation outside.”
“She’s the kind of kid who puts in the work to expand her game,” Sheffield said. “I would say right now she’s a complete player. Every year she’s added a little something else to her game and right now I don’t think there’s a weakness in her game.”
The three have picked right up from where they left off last year. Krabacher is hitting .286 and leads the Flyers with 91 kills. Campbell, now a junior who had surgery after last season to repair a torn patella tendon in her knee, is hitting a team-leading .371 and has 17 blocks.
But here’s the kicker: Isolde Hannan, a 6-foot sophomore middle from Dublin, Ohio, and Alaina Turner, a 5’10” freshman outside from Canton, Mich., are putting up impressive numbers, too. Hannan has a whopping 30 blocks, while Turner is second on the team with 62 kills and has 11 blocks.
“I have pretty much every option possible,” Selsky said. “We can run double quicks, we can run our middles from off the net, when I’m front row I can attack, our outsides can play backcourt defense, we have pipes, so at any given time we never have less than four attack options. Which is a whole lot for blockers on the other side of the net to be worried about. There are a lot of weapons.”
All of which leads us to a team poised to finally make a postseason run, buoyed by the early season attention.
“Rankings don’t mean that much,” said Krabacher, “but it’s nice for people to be aware of what we are doing and that we are out there and that we’re coming to get people.”