Local Fare: NCC volleyball thrilled with dream season

North Central College has not been immune to athletic success in recent years. Most notably, the Cardinals' football program won the NCAA Division III national football championship in 2019 and 2022, and finished second in 2021.

So, when Kyle Exline took over the men's volleyball program from its birth in 2014, one had to figure at some point there would be success on a national level.

That came this year as NCC advanced to the DIII national championship game before falling to Stevens Institute of Technology on April 30.

"From the inception of the program, we believed that we were and are a top team in the country," Exline said. "Every season we have the same goals - to be healthy mentally, emotionally, socially, and physically. We then turn our focuses to earn the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Team Academic Award, win the CCIW regular season, win the CCIW tournament, and then win the NCAA tournament.

"Our student-athletes have worked extremely hard to earn the opportunity to compete for a national championship and should be proud of their accomplishments this year. This experience will live with us forever. Since we started the program in 2014, we have always had the ambition to pursue a national championship, but we knew that it was going to take a lot of work to build the culture.

Those accomplishments included a 25-4 overall record and a perfect 10-0 campaign in the CCIW. After winning the CCIW tournament, NCC toughed out a grueling 3-2 win over Benedictine in the regional semifinals before downing Carthage in the regional finals and then upsetting No. 1 seed Vassar in the national semifinals.

"Reaching the national championship and playing in that match was something that, up until that point, was something I had only ever dreamed of, said junior setter Tyler Donovan, a product of Lakes High School in Lake Villa who is majoring in journalism and media communication with a minor in sport management.

"So, you can imagine how it might feel to have a dream come true, literally. Our team had been through a lot, and we kept thinking, just play for the rest of the guys, and me specifically, do it for the seniors. Obviously, our team is more than just the seniors, but that group of seven amazing individuals had set the precedent and the expectations, three years ago, from the first time I came in as a freshman, that a national championship was in our reach. Finally getting there and getting that chance to compete in the biggest game of the season was something that I don't think is possible to put into words."

Exline's roster this season was a mix of local and national talent. In addition to Donovan, Wheeling alum Jared Moser, Neuqua Valley grad Jeremy Cardenas and Oswego alum Ben Williams were seniors on the squad, while juniors included Nathan Jones of Palatine and Karson Eggert of Plainfield East.

With several returning players from a 2022 team that went 19-5, both Donovan and Exline felt confident the Cardinals would have success this season.

"From the first practice of our fall, off-season time together, we knew we could go all the way, there was no question about it," said Donovan, who dished out 1,028 of the team's 1,229 assists on the season.

"The core of this team has been together for a long time, and we all knew that if we were going to have a chance at a national championship at some point, this year was the year to do it. At our very first practice Coach Exline looked at the board in our gym with all of NCC's National Champions and said something along the lines of this is the last time this season we talk about this. It wasn't because he didn't believe in us, but rather because he knew we could go that far, but wanted to emphasize that the way we get there is by being present in every moment and being where our feet are throughout every step of the season. In that moment, we all bought into that same belief."

Said Exline: "Our program is deeply rooted in a WE before ME philosophy and the student-athletes are selfless and care about their brothers. We have amazing alumni that helped set the standard and it is our job every year to defend their legacy. Our squad this year created and redefined the legacy that our future rosters will work tirelessly to defend."

On and off the court, Donovan said the key to the team's success was trust.

"I'd say a big key to the team's success this year was trust," he said. "Trust in ourselves, trust in our teammates, and trust in our coaches. Now, this doesn't mean having blind faith in each other, but instead having a lot of deep, meaningful conversations, a lot of questions being asked, and a lot of seeing what else could be done. Every single one of us wanted to contribute as much as we possibly could for this team - all seven seniors, all seven juniors, all three sophomores, and all three first-years. All 20 of us did everything we could to go as far as we possibly could.

"The foundation that was put down by those that came before us is something we talk about a lot, and those seniors that are graduating this year had just as big of an effect on this program. It's now up to the rest of us to defend that legacy day in and day out, while at the same time creating our own legacy. With all the guys we have in our program right now, along with all the guys that will be coming in next year, we are in a very good spot to do that again."

The North Central College men's volleyball team finished second at the NCAA Division III national tournament this season. Courtesy of Steve Woltmann via North Central College athletics
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