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October 2, 2013

Wayne State University volleyball program hopes to be championship contender

By Mark Vest
C & G Sports Writer

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Wayne State University volleyball program hopes to be championship contender
Members of Wayne State University’s volleyball team are pictured at a recent practice. Coach Phil Nickel would like to see the Warriors put themselves in position to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1994.

DETROIT — Wayne State University volleyball coach Phil Nickel is hoping to take the program somewhere it hasn’t been since 1994 — to the NCAA tournament.

And while it is possible to make it there without winning a conference championship, the only sure way for the Warriors to make the Division II national tournament in December is via coming away from the season as the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (GLIAC) champs.

Last season, Wayne State made it to the semifinal round of the GLIAC tournament, which is also how far they made it in 2008 — Nickel’s first year at the helm. Right now, Nickel thinks Wayne State’s program is in a position to take that next big step and make it out of its conference.

If the Warriors are able to make it out of the GLIAC and into the NCAA tournament, Nickel doesn’t want it to be an opportunity that only comes around once every 20 years or so.

“We are trying to establish ourselves as one of the top teams in the GLIAC, (and) one of the top teams in the Midwest,” he said. “We want people to think about Wayne State and say, ‘Oh yeah, they’re really good.’ We’re trying to get to that point where we’re that team everybody’s trying to beat — to be, year-in, year-out, one of the top teams in the conference (and) go to the NCAA tournament on a consistent basis.”

Nickel isn’t the only one who would like to see big things for Wayne State’s volleyball program.

“As a senior, it would be nice to finish up my last year with a GLIAC championship,” said Kristen Bulkiewicz (Sandwich High School in LaSalle, Ont.). “Mainly this year, we’re working on team chemistry — everyone working together for a common goal.”

Senior Jessica DeLeeuw (Harrison Township L’Anse Creuse) would also like to do some damage in the GLIAC.

“I think our goals are to prove to the GLIAC what kind of team we can be,” she said. “I think this is our year to prove to them we’re someone to look out for.”

Veteran players can be a big asset for a coach who is trying take a program to places it’s never been before, and Nickel would like to see Bulkiewicz and DeLeeuw, who are the only seniors currently active on the roster, help lead the charge for the Warriors. Nicole Arends is also a senior for Wayne State, and although she is currently out with an injury, Nickel is hoping to get her back before the end of the season.

“All three are leaders on the team,” he said. “They’re trying really hard. It’s always a work in progress, but they’ve stepped up and led the way. The two that are healthy, neither are the outspoken-type kids — they’re trying to lead by example as much as they can. The girl that’s hurt is the outspoken-type player. They’re doing a nice job.”

With five freshmen, four sophomores and four juniors also on the roster, on the whole, Wayne State’s squad is young. And while there may be some bumps in the road along the way with such a young squad, Nickel thinks the experience they are gaining could pay dividends for the Warriors in time.

Wayne State has already achieved at a high level academically, being the recipients of the American Volleyball Coach’s Association (AVCA) Team Academic Award for the 2012-13 season, and Nickel is also looking forward to seeing what can be accomplished on the volleyball court as the program moves forward.

“I am really excited,” he said. “Part of our inconsistency right now deals with the fact that we’re starting four sophomores and a freshman on a consistent basis. We’re pretty young. Those seniors do a really good job, but (we) also have some really good young players. As we have more success, we find we’re able to recruit better players. Very excited about the future and think the best is yet to come.”

You can reach C & G Sports Writer Mark Vest at mvest@candgnews.com or at (586)279-1112. Twitter Follow Mark on Twitter.