Some say volleyball has never really been an East Coast thing, and others think Bowdoin's athletics can't compete with its academics, but anyone following the team this year would be quick to disagree with both assertions.
Head Coach Karen Corey's team has cemented itself as the best in school history. The list of accolades for this team seems to, quite literally, grow by the day.
The team's 26-2 record has shattered the previous program bests of 22 wins in 1988 and 10 losses in '86. Bowdoin won the NESCAC Championship for the first time last weekend after never having won a single tournament game; the team will compete in its first D-III tournament today as the No. 24 team against Baruch College.
A year after the Polar Bears finished third in the NESCAC, they set a new school record by winning 17 straight games this year, went undefeated in NESCAC play, and extended their home winning streak to 35 games.
Captain Kristin Hanczor '12 and Sophia Cornew '14 were named First Team All-NESCAC—the first time Bowdoin has made the list in over a decade—and Hanczor became the first Polar Bear to win Player of the Year. Cornew had the third-most assists in program history this year, and could theoretically break the record this weekend. Hanczor, meanwhile, set a new program record for blocks and stands second in kills.
Corey, meanwhile, was named NESCAC Coach of the Year.
"Karen has done a phenomenal job of giving people who weren't finished products the coaching they need so they can develop as really strong players," said Director of Athletics Jeff Ward.
In her six years here, Corey has yet to finish with a losing record, and this year she became the fastest coach to reach 100 victories.
"When I took the job, I looked around and said, 'Why can't Bowdoin be the top in the conference?'" she said. "You can set all those goals, but it doesn't always work out that way. It takes time, but I feel like we're in a great place right now."
Corey said that the players have more confidence in their skills because of the team's competitive schedule in recent years, and that they have pure determination to win.
"I think the players see that you have to be a great conditioned team to have success, so they commit themselves to the weight room," she said. "And with matches approaching two hours in length, players have to be in peak shape to compete at a high level throughout."
Corey was quick to point out the intangibles she thinks make Bowdoin great.
"There's a certain amount of talent that goes into teams," said Corey. "Some people have that and some people don't. But I think being a great teammate is the key to make a difference, and when you're a great cohesive team in that regard, it's hard to be beaten."
Yet these levels of success are new to the program, as Bowdoin volleyball joined the varsity ranks relatively recently and has never performed quite like it has this year.
It originated at the club level in the mid-1980s, under the leadership of Jennie Wald '89 and Andrea London '89. They worked with Sidney Watson, the athletic director at the time, to make it a varsity program; soon after, a number of other women's sports were initiated.
In 1986, its first year as a varsity sport, Lynn Ruddy became the head coach and guided the team to a 10-10 record.
"Sid Watson asked if I could take this over, and I said 'Sure, I can try it,'" Ruddy said.
Brought to the College in 1976 as an assistant coach for the track and swimming teams, Ruddy led the volleyball team for 15 years before refocusing her efforts on track. She is currently the associate director of athletics for facilities, and remains an assistant track and field coach for the high jump and hurdles.
Though her tenure concluded with a sub-.500 record, the first four years of the program were some of its most successful, including a 22-13 season in 1988 that set a wins record not to be broken for 23 years.
Bowdoin volleyball has never been competitive on the national level before this year, and NESCAC teams in general have not had much success—for some time, they were even prohibited from going to nationals.
Ruddy said that the end of her time as volleyball coach came at a perfect moment for a change, because many rules were being modified. The defensive libero player was being incorporated into the game, and the scoring changed to rally scoring, in which a point is scored on every point served as opposed to just on those points won by the serving team.
"The earlier scoring made it go so long," said Ruddy. "We would have been a much better team had they had rally scoring when I was coaching."
After Ruddy's decade and a half at the helm, Kellie Bearman coached for five years in which the team never had a winning record. During that time, the NESCAC rules were also transforming.
The playoff system used to have every team participate, with the site rotating on an annual basis from one school to the next. Postseason tournament play the way it currently is—with the top eight teams qualifying—first occurred in 2001, and it was originally played at the top-seeded school a year later.
In the 25 years since volleyball became a varsity sport, it has also undergone significant changes behind the scenes.
"The team's schedule now is infinitely more difficult than ours was at that time, when Bates was really running over everyone, along with Amherst," said Ruddy.
"Some of it becomes self-perpetuating," said Ward. "If the conference is strong, it tends to attract strong players. At that level, the margins between success and failure get really small."
In her day, though, Ruddy had a harder time recruiting players than Corey has now. Only a few Maine high schools had volleyball teams of any kind at any point during Ruddy's time as coach, and it was harder and more expensive to recruit from the sport's major hotbed, California, along with other areas around the country that are more accessible now.
"Back then, we weren't encouraged much to go outside of New England," she said. "You had to wait for a videotape to be sent to you, and you were sending letters back and forth. The ways you can recruit now with all the technology is way different, and it's easier to evaluate players."
She also noted that in her time, a significantly smaller audience had access to games.
"Before, if you went to the Final Four just before Christmas, you wouldn't see the game on TV until sometime in mid-January around 11 at night," she said. "But now, you can turn on ESPN and watch it being played, or follow along live with webcasts."
And thanks to this coverage, Bowdoin volleyball now reaches a broader range of people than ever before, and it's easier to stay involved with the program after graduating.
"We had five recent alumni in the gym last weekend cheering us on, and I know others were watching the webcast," said Corey. "Those girls put a lot of time into the culture of changing this program, and I really appreciated having them there to celebrate the victory."
Ruddy and Corey agree that this year's success will put more of a national spotlight on Bowdoin.
"Any one of those kids on that team could be playing anywhere else as well," said Ruddy. "But they all chose to come here."
"I think the title will get Bowdoin a little more attention from athletes who maybe hadn't looked at us in the past," Corey added. "These girls will be in the record books for a while."