The conclusion of the Western Washington University volleyball team’s dominating regular season turned into the Wesco show.
The Vikings were in the fourth set of their match against Northwest Nazarene when Kayleigh Harper and Gabby Gunterman decided to put the proceedings to rest. Serve after serve it was one of the Wesco alums who put the point away, Harper and Gunterman trading kills like a pair of kids with thick stacks of Pokemon cards. Those two combined to register kills on Western’s final eight points as the Vikings closed out the regular season with a 3-1 victory.
Now Harper and Gunterman are looking to replicate that feat in the NCAA Division II tournament — and lead the Vikings to the national championship that ever so slightly escaped their grasp a year ago.
Harper, an Oak Harbor High School graduate, and Gunterman, a Lake Stevens High School alum, are leading the Viking charge into the postseason, which begins this week when Western heads to the NCAA Division II Volleyball Championships’ West Regional in San Bernardino, California.
Western is 26-2 and ranked No. 4 nationally in the American Volleyball Coaches Association NCAA Division II poll. The Vikings earned the No. 2 seed in the West Regional and face No. 7 seed Hawaii Hilo in the first round at 2:30 p.m. Thursday. Three wins in three days would give Western one of eight berths in the national championships, which take place Dec. 12-14 in Denver.
Harper and Gunterman, teammates on the court and roommates off it, are two of the primary reasons Western finds itself in its lofty position. Harper, a senior middle blocker and an All-American the previous two years, was named the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year after recording 297 kills and 133 blocks in 26 matches. Gunterman, a sophomore outside hitter who was a key reserve on last year’s team, earned first-team All-GNAC honors this season after notching 288 kills and 355 digs, also in 26 contests.
And the duo is leading Western’s drive toward finishing one place better than the Vikings did last year, when they were national runners-up.
“I’ve believed in us from day one,” Harper said. “Obviously this is something that takes hard work, but there was never a time when I thought we were incapable of doing something like this.”
This was a team that suffered heartbreak in last year’s national-championship match. Western already had vanquished the nation’s top-ranked squad when the Vikings beat Cal State San Bernardino in the West Region final in a five-set slugfest — Harper had a match-high 26 kills and Gunterman added 15. Western rolled through its first two matches at nationals to meet Tampa for the national title. Western won two of the first three sets and had a 12-6 lead in the fourth, but Tampa rallied to win the set, then took the fifth to claim the championship. Harper and Gunterman each had 16 kills in the match.
“I think there were a lot of tears,” Harper said about her immediate reaction to the loss. “In the fourth game we were up, it was so emotional because we were so close.
“But I was proud of how we played,” Harper added. “Losing sucks, but I think we all left it out there on the court.”
Despite the loss, Harper and Gunterman said that isn’t what’s fueled them this season.
“I think it’s been a driving force, but I don’t think it’s something we’ve dwelled upon, either,” Gunterman said. “If anything, we learned from what we did there. The thing we were able to take away is that we have that experience now, and we hadn’t had anything like that before.”
Indeed, the Vikings had to figure out what they had this year before conjuring up visions of another title run. Western suffered substantial attrition as kills leader Abby Phelps, mainstay middle blocker Michaela Hall and starting setter Brette Boesel all graduated. Harper and Gunterman were the team’s top two returning players, and Gunterman wasn’t even a starter.
But those two have elevated their games, with Harper leading the GNAC in both blocks per set (1.45) and hitting percentage (.386). Gunterman ranks in the top 10 in the conference in both kills per set (3.10) and digs per set (3.82). Meanwhile, the Vikings had some important additions to the lineup in the form of redshirt freshmen Calley Heilborn and Malia Aleaga, who have filled the void at outside hitter and setter, respectively.
“Oh my gosh, I think all of (the newcomers) have been amazing,” Gunterman said. “Both Kayleigh and I know that the first time playing it feels super overwhelming, it feels like the game is going so fast. Every one of them has grown from it and really sprouted into their own person out there. It was a lot of pressure on them to fill some big shoes, and every person has definitely done that.”
Both Harper and Gunterman said they weren’t thinking about a national championship, but were instead focused only on Hawaii Hilo.
But if Western does end up lifting the national-championship trophy, the run to the title will have been powered largely by its Wesco duo.
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