When Jessica Cleveland interviewed for the open McPherson College volleyball coaching position in 2015, she informed school officials she had a grand plan to win the KCAC championship by Year 5.
She needed only 3.
Cleveland inherited a Bulldog team that had finished dead last in the KCAC with a 2-18 record and 7-25 mark overall.
But where others saw misery, she saw opportunity.
“I knew the talent McPherson College had on their roster,” Cleveland said. “We had scrimmaged them my last year at Hesston (College) and I remember thinking, ‘why are they losing? They have the talent.’ So when McPherson opened up I knew it would be an easy transition.”
Cleveland is a graduate of Grand Island High School in Nebraska, a volleyball hotbed. She played collegiately at Hesston before completing her career at Friends University, which introduced her to the KCAC. She stayed on for a year as an assistant coach, then spent a short time at Nebraska-Kearney, which finished fifth in the nation during her time there under coach Rick Squires.
She returned to Hesston as the head coach for 5 years. Twice she had teams win 21 matches, but only finished in the middle of the Jayhawk Conference. She said all the time spent recruiting took its toll since many of the JC teams recruit internationally, while the budget was tight at Hesston and her recruiting area was limited.
So familiar with the KCAC, she jumped at the chance to coach at McPherson College, which she saw as more of an even playing field.
Unlike Hesston, where she had one returning player for her first year and had to bring in an entire team, the Bulldogs had 18 players back, including some talented freshmen. Cleveland said a couple of those players wanted to transfer out, so she basically had to re-recruit them to Mac. “I had to get them to buy into what my vision of the program was. Luckily they gave me the chance and stuck with it. I hope they feel like it has paid off for them.”
In her first year in 2016, the Bulldogs broke the school record for victories with 21. “The standard was kind of low at 21,” she said laughingly. “I kind of came in and set a very strong dominant presence about this is the way I run things and you’re either on board or you’re not. They were ready and open-minded to change. They just wanted a coach to believe in them and direct them to winning. We just tried to play our best every game and the wins just kept coming.”
They broke the record again last year with 22 wins. In both years, the Bulldogs advanced to the KCAC Postseason Tournament’s Final Four after being spectators prior to her arrival.
Going into this season, the Bulldogs had a wealth of experience as she had to replace only a single senior.
The KCAC Preseason Tournament at the Hutchinson Sports Arena set the tone. The Bulldogs went through the field unscathed and defeated both Ottawa and Kansas Wesleyan, schools that had dominated them for the last decade.
“We lost only one senior last year and she was a setter,” Cleveland said. “The setter we brought in came in February (for the second semester). We had been together as a team since February so at the KCAC Fall Fling we were already in a rhythm, we knew how each other played and it was the same team as last year plus one. Other teams were still figuring out lineups and who works best where. You could tell we had a flow right away.”
The Bulldogs rolled through their first 11 matches before losing to Concordia University. But after falling off the horse, they climbed right back on by toppling nationally ranked Hastings College on its home court.
“Our mindset against Hastings was ‘we’re just here to get better for conference,’" Cleveland said. "Conference play was going to start the following Wednesday. So we just said ‘this is a great team to get better at. The first set they killed us, so then we said ‘let’s at least try to be competitive.' Then we did better and we took a set and we thought we'd get another set to get better. Next thing we know we won in five. The result was definitely unexpected, but good.”
And they’ve continued to win, win and win some more. The streak is now at 19, including a perfect 12-0 run through the KCAC, again defeating thorn-in-the-sides Ottawa and Kansas Wesleyan. They are 30-1 and already have secured a trip to the NAIA National Tournament.
In 31 matches, they have won 18 by a 3-0 score (including their last eight), five by 3-1 and seven by 3-2, not losing a single fifth set all year, which Cleveland says is a sign of a good team. Last year that was its weakness, but the improved mental toughness has made the difference. “When they’ve taken to the floor for the fifth set, they've just had this look they were going to win and had the confidence and toughness to finish it.”
“We really focused on one game at time,” Cleveland added, as her team doesn't really pay attention to the length of the streak. “You couldn’t take any team for granted. Teams definitely stepped up their game against us and made us work really hard.”
When you look at the Bulldogs, it’s not a team that overwhelms you with their physical makeup. They don’t have that dominant 6-3 hitter or a couple of 6-2 blockers.
“5-11 is our tallest,” Cleveland said. “We take a lot of pride in our team being balanced. Yes, we have Lexi Kite (probably the KCAC Player of the Year) as our go-to player, but a lot of teams rely on only one player to win. This year we haven’t had to rely on Lexi for a win on every game. Defensively we’ve been No. 1 in the nation most of the year. We run a different defense than everybody else and we’ve gone a good job of perfecting that. Teams don’t know how to beat us because it’s so different.”
Kite, Devrie Sombers and Leia Seiler are the three players who were there in the dark days and want to close their careers with a deep postseason run.
The Bulldogs, who have amazingly won 211 of 228 sets this season, take the No. 1 seed into the KCAC Postseason Tournament that starts on Friday in Hutchinson. There’s plenty of incentive as they want to prove their championship was no fluke, even though teams often seem to let off the gas in the postseason tournament since the goal of making nationals has already been achieved.
“We still looking at it as one game at a time,” Cleveland said.