WOMEN’S VOLLEYBALL REACHES RARIFIED HEIGHTS OF THE NCAA FINAL FOUR
On an evening in late August, more than 400 USD scholar-athletes gathered in Founders Chapel to celebrate The Blessing of the Toreros. The annual event is held on the night before the first day of school to commemorate a new year for USD athletics.
Sitting in the front three rows on the left side of the chapel was USD’s women’s volleyball team, which that weekend had traveled to College Station, Texas, and returned home with a 3-0 record, including an upset of sixth-ranked Pitt.
“I told the scholar-athletes they had sitting with them — in front, in those first three rows — a role model of what every team should aspire to be,” recalls Executive Director of Athletics Bill McGillis.
The 18 players on that team, head coach Jennifer Petrie and the Founders Chapel audience could not have known it at the time, but Women’s Volleyball had taken the initial steps of
what would be a stunning season.
Some 344 Division I universities compete in women’s volleyball. Three and half months after The Blessing of the Toreros, USD was one of only four teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament.
Although USD would fall to eventual champion Texas at the Final Four semifinals in Omaha, Nebraska, what the Toreros achieved along that path was historic.
On the podium after the loss to Texas, Petrie said, “I could not be more proud of these girls and what they have done for our program and the university, for the city of San Diego, for each other and for the staff.”
Moments later, fifth-year senior and outside hitter Katie Lukes added, “It’s definitely been a dream.”
To understand why what Petrie and her band of 18 players accomplished was incredible, one needs some perspective. The USD volleyball team is the most successful athletic program on campus, and Petrie is the most successful coach of any college team in San Diego.
The Toreros have been ranked in the American Volleyball Coaches Association top 25 at some point in each of the past 25 seasons. Petrie just completed her 24th season as USD’s head coach. The Toreros have advanced to the NCAA Tournament in 22 of those seasons.
But for all the program’s success, it seemingly had a ceiling, never advancing past the Sweet 16.
Then along came the 2022 team, which shattered that ceiling.
The Toreros advanced to the Final Four for the first time. USD finished 31-2, the only losses coming to Texas and Louisville, the NCAA championship finalists. The Toreros ran off 28 straight wins before falling to the Longhorns.
Three players — setter Gabby Blossom (first team), opposite Grace Frohling (second team) and Lukes (third team) — earned All-American honors, the first time USD had three players earn that status in the same year.
Petrie was named the national coach of the year, another USD first.
In a moving acceptance speech, Petrie thanked her parents and let the audience know that her father had passed away in September.
“It’s been a very hard season in that regard,” she said. “But they pushed me to be the very best that I would be, with support, love and grace.”
The team adopted two mantras. One was “18 strong,” meaning every player was equally responsible for the team’s success. And the one that became a rallying cry: “Why not us?”
At the Final Four, nearly 250 fans showed up to cheer on the Toreros, almost all of them decked out in Torero Blue T-shirts and sweatshirts with “Why not us?” emblazoned across the front.
Part of what made the 2022 season so special is that it required a melding of talent. Six starters returned from the 2021 team that finished 20-8, losing to Rice in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Petrie brought in two key graduate transfers, Blossom and outside hitter Breana Edwards. Blossom, who played four years at Penn State, was what Petrie called “the X factor,” a talented athlete who could deliver accurate sets from anywhere on the court.
Blossom became a leader and there was no jealousy among the players who had been on the roster for years.
“I think the transition went well because we knew that we needed her,” said Frohling.
From the University of Indiana, the 6’3” Edwards brought a thunderous kill shot so powerful it made a distinct sound.
“Like a sonic boom,” said Petrie.
“I’m surprised our gym doesn’t have dents in the floor,” joked middle blocker Leyla Blackwell.
And it was a team that played with unabashed joy. In the regional final match against Stanford, on the Cardinal’s home floor, USD rallied from down two sets to one, trailing 23-22 in the fourth set to eventually win in five sets.
When a Stanford block fell out of bounds, clinching the USD win that catapulted the Toreros to the Final Four, players on the bench mobbed those on the floor. The last to emerge from the dogpile was Lukes, tears streaming down her face.
“The grit our team showed that was surreal,” said Lukes.
Five days later, the Toreros lost to Texas and the dream season was over. But not the memories.
“I’m just really, really proud,” Lukes said, minutes after the season ended. “It’s something I’ll never forget.” — Don Norcross
Photo caption: USD Women’s Volleyball hitter Breana Edwards goes in for the kill.
Leave a Reply