You could make the argument that the 2011 Webster University volleyball team, which started five freshmen at times en route to winning a conference championship, didn’t know any better.
Perhaps the young crop of Webster players weren’t saddled with the same pressure that often plagues upperclassmen. Maybe they didn’t realize that pressure was there, staring them in the face.
You could make that argument. But I’d argue Webster was flat-out better than every other team in the St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference. And with 11 players returning from last year’s championship squad, I expect the 2012 version of the Webster volleyball team to prove 2011 was no fluke.
To do that, the Gorloks will have to undergo a transformation that can be both seismic and subtle at the same time. It’s an alteration all of Webster’s teams will have to confront at some point this year, including those competing in the fall. Webster athletics, on a much wider scale than ever before, is transitioning from being the hunter to the hunted.
Thank the baseball team for that. The Gorloks’ first-ever appearance in the College World Series this past May put Webster athletics on the national map. At a welcome-back party on May 29, President Elizabeth Stroble said the team showed “Webster University is a player and a competitor, and we can do it anywhere.”
I don’t expect Webster’s teams to start competing for national championships on a yearly basis. But because of the baseball team’s historic accomplishments, the bar has clearly been raised. It’s going to be awfully interesting to watch Webster athletics attempt to build upon last year’s successes.
And it all begins in the fall. The volleyball team is a microcosm of the hunted-to-hunter change Webster’s teams will try to emulate. Last year, the Gorloks were picked to finish third in the conference by SLIAC coaches. But after winning the 2011 conference title, Webster will have a giant target on its back. That was confirmed when SLIAC coaches recently selected Webster as the preseason favorite.
The golf team has been there, done that. The two-time defending SLIAC champs are in a class of their own and won’t be hunted down by conference competition this season.
The women’s cross-country team won its first SLIAC championship last year. With their five best runners returning, the Gorloks are primed to go back-to-back.
The men’s cross-country squad finished sixth in the SLIAC a year ago. A better result this year is expected, but the Gorloks are still a long way away from catching Principia and Greenville.
Though the women’s soccer team doesn’t have a senior on its 2012 roster, the Gorloks return a majority of their core players, including eight starters. As usual, Principia and Webster should be the two top dogs this year. Greenville and Fontbonne won’t be far behind.
Ten seniors and eight returning starters make up the men’s soccer team, which lost to Greenville in last year’s SLIAC championship game. Greenville, Webster, Fontbonne, Westminster and Principia should all be in the mix for the crown this season.
(Note: For those who are new to this column, I’m a member of Webster’s men’s soccer and men’s tennis teams. I won’t write about these two teams in detail because of my position on them.)
Webster has won the SLIAC All-Sports trophy 13 of the past 14 years, and there’s no reason to believe the Gorloks won’t win the trophy again this year. But simply dominating the SLIAC shouldn’t be the primary focus anymore.
If more Webster teams are going to compete at the national level, it’s going to take a change in the athletic department’s mindset. That change, I believe, has already begun to take place. The level at which it continues will be fun to monitor during the upcoming months.