The Southwestern University Pirates started the season ranked ninth in NCAA Division III by the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) and finished in a five-set loss to No. 4 Colorado College in the Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference (SCAC) championship match.
In between was the story of a young team buoyed by strong leadership from a small senior class, working to find its footing among the nation's elite teams.
The Pirates began the season ranked in the top 10 nationally, which spoke to the amount of talent they had. However, having a lot of newcomers to the 2018 team and three consecutive losses to nationally or regionally ranked teams in three sets each, revealed how inexperienced the team was.
The Pirates finished 18-12, including 12-4 in conference, receiving more votes than any other team outside the AVCA Coaches' Poll's Top 25 and finishing on the outside looking in at an NCAA Tournament bid.
When facing elite competition early, the Pirates struggled, losing to nationally-ranked Trinity and Colorado College in three and four sets. By the end, they defeated Trinity in four and took Colorado College to five.
"If you look at it, we had zero bad losses. All of our losses were to nationally and regionally ranked opponents," Head Coach Don Flora said. "To have that sense we were battling and battling, getting closer to breakthrough wins, those were really important steps of our growth."
The cathartic moment of the season came in October against a string of nationally ranked opponents, taking both Texas-Tyler and Mary Hardin-Baylor to five sets. After losing to Colorado College, the Pirates reeled off seven consecutive wins before a five-set loss to Trinity in the last match of the regular season.
"There were a lot of great markers in the sand of our growth, but that stretch solidified in our minds that we can," Flora said. "And once we decided we could, we did."
Nine first-year students composed more than half of the Pirates' 17-woman roster and the strides made by the team were exemplified by Ashley Whitlock, who went from not starting to making Second Team All-ACAC.
Whitlock led the conference in blocks per set (0.89) and hitting percentage (.395) in conference play.
"This is a really good conference and Ashley went from not playing to being one of the best middle blocker, numbers-wise, in conference play," Flora said. "It really threw me off when I saw her numbers at the end of the year. Over the last few weeks, she really ascended to another level."
The rest of the team matched that growth. Whether first-year setter Makenzie Mendez improvement sparked the emergence of the Pirates' young front row. The development of new options sped up her progression as she stepped up as one of the best young setters in the conference, helping Southwestern improve its efficiency throughout conference play.
"What Makenzie did to take over the offense, to run the offense and lead the team, making decisions, was huge," Flora said. "She had a really good tournament with 22 digs against Colorado College."
One-by-one and as a collective unit, the young players stepped up. Ali Grona made key digs throughout the tournament, stopping big swings with no block up to thwart opponents' best shots. Alyssa Dooley found seams against Trinity in the last match of the regular season, earning the final SCAC Offensive Player of the Week of the season.
"One of the things with our program is learning is job one," Flora said. "We really want our student-athletes to understand the game.
"Volleyball IQ is an important component of what we look for in who we recruit and what we expect from them during their time here. The magic is in their ability to want to learn and improve."
For the second year in a row, the Pirates' development program paid off with a senior making the All-SCAC First Team after not making an all-conference team in any of their previous three years.
Jamison Duck led the conference in kills per set (3.25), showing an all-around game by finishing second on the team in digs with 15 double-doubles in points and digs during the regular season.
"She just bought into the process of learning," Flora said. "Jamison and Brandi Campos had really strong years for us. If you look at them, Jillian Jeane, and the leadership they brought as seniors, they left the program better than they found it."