by josh sigler kokomo tribune
---- — Heather Hayes describes herself as a “passionate perfectionist.”
An intense desire to succeed in her volleyball career as a player at Frankfort High School, the University of Montevallo and later the University of Indianapolis followed her into her coaching career, where she won eight conference, five sectional and one regional titles at Frankfort by persuading her players to buy into an intense attention to the details.
Just 21 matches into her collegiate coaching career, Hayes’ reliance on those same principles has Indiana University Kokomo’s fledgling program off to a remarkable start in just its third year of existence. The Cougars entered the week with a 17-4 record, boasting several players who are ranking near the top of the NAIA statistical rankings.
Not bad for a squad that finished 9-25 last season. Hayes looked at .500 as a reasonable goal for this year.
“It’s been extremely exciting and I just couldn’t be more happy and more proud of the girls, because it’s very difficult to walk in and help build a program and be patient,” Hayes said. “And, sometimes those girls who initially start the program aren’t the ones who get to experience the initial stages of success. I’m very excited that, not only have they had to take the bumps and hits by starting the program, but they’re also able to see the rewards of their hard work before they graduate.”
The attention to detail has been evident in the statistics as the team has racked up victories. Hayes said teams typically score 15 points by their own doing in any given set. Those other 10 points come from the mistakes opposing teams make. Her goal has been to reduce that number by half for the Cougars, and the results have been staggering. The squad ranks in the top 50 nationally in seven different categories, including fourth in service aces (161), eighth in total kills (939), ninth in assists (846), 20th in digs (1,115), 27th in blocks (133.5), 29th in aces per game (1.96) and 49th in hitting percentage (.212).
“In high school volleyball, girls can get away with things by making athletic plays,” Hayes explained. “But, in the college game, you’re playing against better, faster athletes. And, if you get undisciplined it’s very easy to get burned at the collegiate level. So, I’ve had to try to train them to be more disciplined-thinking volleyball players instead of just showing up saying ‘I’m more athletic than everyone else.’ Being more athletic than everyone doesn’t really work at the collegiate level because every team has great athletes.”
All but three of current Cougars are underclassmen, a fact Hayes believes has helped the squad develop a strong cohesion at a faster pace than the average squad. It’s been most evident in the squad’s offensive attack, where two freshmen rank in the top 100 in the NAIA in kills.
Columbus East product Micayla Speidel has led the charge, with her 304 kills ranking third in the NAIA. An admitted introvert, the team’s chemistry has helped her break out of her shell, something she credits for her early success.
“I know, in high school, I was very inconsistent,” Speidel said. “Here, I knew Coach expected a lot from me kill-wise. I knew I had to cut down on errors. And, on the court, I’m like the quietest person, just very to myself. So, when everyone is going crazy after a kill and everything, that’s helped me a lot. It helps me get energized, and in return I think that helps a lot when I go out and just swing.”
Hayes’ first crop of recruits come from prep programs steeped in tradition. Southwood product Kaley Harness, who ranks 97th in the NAIA in kills with 169 and fourth in aces with 45, knows nothing but success in the sport.
“All the freshman, since we came from pretty good programs, came in with the mindset of, ‘We not going to lose,” Harness said. “‘That’s not what we’re used to. We’re not coming in here to start losing. We’re going to help the team and start winning, because that’s what we’re used to.’”
Junior defensive specialist Lael Burrus has had the unique experience of watching the program grow from its infancy, a 3-16 campaign in its first season in 2011, to last season’s 9-25 mark. A North Miami product, she’s now the team’s defensive stalwart, tied for 13th in the NAIA with 334 digs, helping a young program raise its ceiling to a level few thought possible in just three years.
“It’s something I didn’t know if I’d be here to see or not,” Burrus said. “I feel so blessed to be able to have this experience. I’ve always been excited and thankful to be able to be a part of this. To be a part of those early successes has been amazing.”
IN ACTION TONIGHT IU Kokomo hosts Cincinnati Christian in a conference match at 7 p.m. today at Cougar Gym downtown. IUK is 17-4 overall and 4-1 in the Kentucky Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. Cincy Christian is 2-8 and 1-3. The teams have meet twice previously this season, but only this match will count in the conference standings per league rules. IUK won the two previous matchups.