DECATUR — It has been a whirlwind week for Millikin's volleyball team with dizzying highs and maddening lows.
After securing an undefeated CCIW conference record, the Big Blue (28-7) lost a hard-fought, five-set marathon match with bitter rival Carthage in the conference tournament, failing to secure an automatic birth in the NCAA Division III tournament.
But based on Millikin's impressive regular season, it was able to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and will face Greenville University at 3 p.m. Thursday in Bloomington at the Shirk Center on the campus of Illinois Wesleyan University.
On top of that it was announced this week that Big Blue swept the three key yearly CCIW awards.
Millikin coach Debbie Kiick, who has led the Big Blue since 2001, won coach of the year.
But she viewed the honor as more of a team accomplishment.
"I’ve coached for 40 years now and 'coach of the year' is really 'team of the year,'" Kiick said. "If you have the athletes, you are going to win some ball games and as a coach you try not to mess it up. Let them do their job. I really think it is 'hardest working team of the year' and I will share that with them. It is 100 percent a group thing."
Alora Goodey, the CCIW conference leader in hitting percentage, captured the player of the year award, making it the fourth time a Millikin player has won the award in the past five years.
Completing the clean sweep, freshman and former Shelbyville volleyball player Maddie Holland won freshman of the year.
"I first heard it through coach Lyndsay (Kooi), she texted me in class and I looked at my phone and thought: Oh wow, I can’t believe this. It was just awesome," Holland said.
Making an impact on such a strong team as a freshman is a credit to Holland's talents.
And Holland's talents lie in blocking opponents' hits.
"Maddie is a true middle. She is so fast and explosive," Kiick said. "From a blocking perspective, she is fast and she’s got really strong shoulders and long arms and she is explosive off the ground."
Holland totaled 107 blocks this season, tops among freshmen in the CCIW, and her average of 0.9 blocks per set in conference play was good for third overall.
The transition from high school volleyball to the college game has been a learning experience for Holland.
"The speed is definitely faster and way quicker and you have to be more alert," Holland said. "It is a little different playing with a bunch of people older than you. In high school, even as a senior you knew everyone because it’s such a small school and coming here there are so many new faces, but they are all so welcoming and I felt like I fit in pretty well."
Holland's 'fit' is right between some of the best hitters in the country, which limits her chances at the ball.
"(Maddie) plays in between Erin Syversen and Alora, two of the best players in the country, so how can you justify giving a freshman the ball when you can choose between these two phenomenal players?" Kiick said. "When both Erin and Alora are in the front row I’m not concerned about getting Maddie the ball, but when one or the other is in the front row, we need to give Maddie the ball in that rotation."
Avoiding the spotlight for now is something Holland is OK with.
"As a freshman, it’s kind of a relief being between them. That way I can play my blocking game and I don’t have to worry about being a terminator," Holland said. "I obviously try to terminate when I get the ball but I know I'm not going to be getting the ball a lot. My job for them is to pull the block so they have a seam and get as many touches on the other team’s hits as I can."
She's also happy to be a part of such an accomplished team in her first year.
"(Winning the CCIW), it’s a phenomenal accomplishment for the team. I knew Millikin was good but as a freshman, I honestly didn’t know if I would start anyways. I knew I would be part of the program but I didn’t know if I would first hand be a part of this accomplishment," Holland said.
Facing her first NCAA tournament appearance, Holland will rely upon her high school playoff experience.
"I’m not really nervous about it, I don’t really get nervous when I play just because I’ve played in so many competitions with volleyball and softball so I don’t really get that nervous," she said. "So, I think it will be a great experience no matter what happens."
Millikin's mantra this season has been to focus on the next point rather than getting caught up in watching the scoreboard.
And its next point will be the biggest of the season against Greenville in the NCAA Tournament.
Millikin didn't play Greenville this season but the teams are fairly regular opponents, having played 29 times. The Big Blue has dominated those meetings, winning 22 and 12 in a row.