St. Ambrose men’s volleyball player Dan Dowjotas walked off the court after the championship match at last year’s NAIA national tournament looking for more.
“In that loss to Cal Lutheran, we found out what it takes to compete at a championship level and we’ve been working to do that ever since,” Dowjotas said.
The Fighting Bees — ranked first in the nation for all but two weeks of the 2012 season — attempt to take that next step beginning Thursday, when St. Ambrose hosts the NAIA Men’s Volleyball National Invitational Tournament at Lee Lohman Arena for the final time in the foreseeable future.
The event moves to Denver next year, and with a veteran team that has built a 30-2 record, this might be the best chance St. Ambrose has had in Bill Gleeson’s six seasons as the Bees’ coach to win the title.
“All the pieces are in place,” said Dowjotas, a 6-foot-3 senior outside hitter from Westmont, Ill., who was selected the most valuable player in the Mid-America Men’s Volleyball Intercollegiate Conference.
Kyle Schwetz, a 6-5 junior middle hitter from Carol Stream, Ill., said the Bees have developed the needed depth and chemistry to put together the type of season St. Ambrose has enjoyed.
“We’ve grown as a team over the past couple of years, and that is helping us as much as anything,” Schwetz said. “We all know what the guy next to us is going to do almost before he does it. Having that type of chemistry makes a world of difference.”
That has helped the Bees progress at the national level.
“Our program has grown by leaps and bounds the last couple of years,” said Michael Neuner, a senior from St. Peters, Mo., who was named the setter of the year in the Bees’ conference. “We’ve went from finishing second or third in our conference to winning it and we’ve improved one year to the next at nationals, too. It’s been good, steady progress.”
St. Ambrose has excelled in the sport despite not having a high school boys volleyball program within a 21/2-hour drive of its campus.
All but two of the 15 players on the Bees’ varsity roster are from the suburbs of Chicago, and the other two are from the St. Louis area.
“We’re a little under the radar locally, but we got into it understanding that we are going to have recruit outside of the immediate area, but the Chicago and St. Louis areas have good high school and club boys volleyball,’’ Gleeson said. “The success we’ve had does help us recruit, no question.”
Consistency in the coaching staff also makes a difference.
Although Gleeson is only 29 years old and has been coaching at his alma mater for six years, he is the third-oldest coach in the sport in the NAIA.
“There is a lot of turnover in our sport at a number of institutions, and the stability has been important for us,” Gleeson said. “Our program has grown, just like this team has grown.”
After falling 3-0 to California Lutheran in the 2011 title match at Lee Lohman Arena, Gleeson and the Bees examined where their program was at and what areas if improvements were needed.
Serving and blocking stood out.
“We have been a good offensive team, but we needed to make strides in those two areas if we wanted to move forward and become an elite team,” Gleeson said. “Right now, we are in the top five in the country in both serving and blocking, and that is really helping us compete. Those in the little things have helped.”
Top-seeded St. Ambrose has faced all of the teams that qualified for the national tourney, and the Fighting Bees expect to be challenged, beginning with the two opponents it faces in pool play Thursday.
“We’re working hard right now on the little things,” Schwetz said. “The small things that lead to an extra point can make all the difference when you get into this type of a tournament. We want to be at our best.”
Warner is one of the two teams to defeat St. Ambrose this season, and the Bees’ record includes a pair of five-set victories over Graceland, two of the only four times this year St. Ambrose has been pushed into a fifth set.
Gleeson doesn’t mind the initial tests in the national tourney.
“Both of those teams in our pool are teams that have caught our attention,” Gleeson said. “So, we go in understanding that we will need to be on top of our game.”