Sooners seniors spark surprising run


No one outside the Oklahoma volleyball program expected much from the Sooners this season. OU hadn't posted a winning record since 1997 and had just finished at the bottom of the conference standings with a 2-18 record. The Big 12 coaches predicted another long season for the Sooners in the preseason poll, forecasting a 10th-place finish in 2006.

After three consecutive losing seasons, it would have been easy for the Oklahoma seniors to play out their careers, earn their degrees and move on to the next phase in their lives. That's exactly what the rest of the conference expected from OU.

But the Sooners seniors had other plans.

Setter Rachel Jackson, defensive specialist Anna Monsen, outside hitter Joanna Schmitt and middle blocker Laura Tomes had done everything that was asked of them during their first three seasons, but had only a 30-60 record to show for their efforts. With one season remaining, they were determined to do whatever it took to finish their careers on a high note.

"The four of us have been starting since our freshman year," said Tomes, who has flourished since moving to the middle this season. "To go against players like Melissa Elmer from Nebraska and Kathy Hahn from Texas as a freshman, you don't know what you're getting into, no matter how good you may be. So finally, we have a team that has been playing together for years and playing at this level for a long time."

Experience is valuable, but so is adding a player like senior Eliane Santos, who leads the team in blocks and is a valuable offensive option in a diversified attack after transfering to Oklahoma before her junior year. Santos' skill level and work ethic were the perfect addition to a team that prides itself in doing whatever it takes to win.

"We're a bunch of players who like to scrap and fight and scratch for everything," said Schmitt, who leads the Sooners with 458 kills. "We are not going to let a point go by without fighting for it. We're a bunch of players who are underdogs and we like to fight for our glory."

Third-year head coach Santiago Restrepo didn't have to teach the Sooners to work hard, that's a concept most of them were more than familiar with before they relocated to Norman.

Monsen grew up on her parent's farm in Wisconsin, where according to the OU media guide, she was "raised chasing cattle, baling hay and raising tobacco." Santos is currently juggling a trio of responsibilities as a student, a volleyball player and the mother of a six-year-old daughter.

And then there is Tomes, who has battled back from three knee surgeries and is playing this season with two bulging discs in her back. She tore her right anterior cruciate ligament during her junior year in high school, her left ACL during her freshman year at OU and the meniscus in her left knee last season.

"After the second knee surgery, I kind of lied to myself and said if I have to have another one, that would mean that I probably should be done," Tomes said. "The last one was very minimal, compared to the other ones. It was a very short rehab, a very easy process, so I decided I can do this."

Watching Tomes on the court, you would never know she also is playing with a chronic back condition that would force many players to the bench. Tomes is enjoying her best season in a Sooner uniform, leading the team with a .370 hitting percentage while posting career highs of 308 kills and 124 blocks.

"All five seniors have meant so much to the program, but especially Laura Tomes," Restrepo said. "I always knew that she had the athleticism and I always knew that she could be a very good player, but with all the injuries she had, it just slowed down her development as a volleyball player. It's good to see that she is able to do that now."

The Sooners are tied with Texas for second place in the Big 12 with a 16-3 conference record. That represents the biggest one-year turnaround in Big 12 history and the Sooners have won more Big 12 matches this year than in the previous three seasons combined.

"It all starts with the seniors," Restrepo said. "The last three years, they've been getting their butts kicked by the conference. They just decided enough is enough and we have to take it to them."

OU started its season with an 8-2 record in nonconference play against a schedule designed to generate wins. The Sooners opened Big 12 play with a three-game win at Texas A&M, and after falling to No. 1 Nebraska, ran off eight straight victories before losing in five games at Texas.

During the last four weeks, Oklahoma has won seven of eight matches, including its first-ever victory over the Longhorns and a come-from-behind win at Missouri in five games.

"Our confidence is on the rise," Tomes said, "But people still think of us as just Oklahoma, which has never been any kind of a powerhouse in the Big 12. In a way, we're still kind of the underdog. Our record may be good, but people aren't looking at us as a really good volleyball team."

The Sooners' 25 victories are the most for the program since 1987 and the 16 conference wins are the most ever in the Big 12. OU also has locked up its first winning season since 1997.

Their success finally has translated into some national recognition. Oklahoma was ranked No. 13 in the latest CSTV/AVCA Division I Top 25 Coaches Poll, which ties the program's highest ranking ever.

"I think we're happy to be getting any respect," Schmitt said. "As a volleyball program, we don't really have much history. I think we're going up against many teams that have history that dates back to before I was born. For us to be getting respect nationally, it's a great honor."

If the Sooners win their final regular season match and one more in the NCAA Tournament, they will tie the program record for wins in a season (27-13 in 1985) since the NCAA began sponsoring women's volleyball in 1982. But OU has its sights on going well beyond the first round of the tournament.

"We hope we can go all the way," Schmitt said. "That's our goal right now. But we're going to take it one match at a time. In the tournament there are Cinderella stories and anybody can knock anybody off. But in the back of our minds, we're thinking we can make it all the way."

Regardless of how the season ends, the Oklahoma seniors can be proud of the fact that they were able to put the program on the national landscape and add a new chapter to the history of Sooner volleyball.

"We are very proud that we can go from being last in the conference to second or third, wherever we end up," Schmitt said. "When we walk out of the gym for the last time, we're definitely going to walk out with our heads held high knowing that we turned this program around."

Dave Reed has covered college volleyball for national publications since 1996.