A historically great season for Northwest Nazarene University volleyball came to a sudden end Thursday.
With the end of the season came the end of college volleyball for Heritage High School graduate Kaitlyn Tuholski, a versatile 5-foot-10 senior who played all over the court in four years as a Crusader.
She believes that the end for her is a stepping stone for the future of a program that carries on for Hockinson High School graduate Taylor Van Valey — and the 6-foot-2 junior right side hitter is eager to continue building on the team’s established success.
Both of the team’s Clark County players look at the season’s accomplishments — the 24-3 record, Great Northwest Athletic Conference championship, No. 10 ranking in NCAA Division II and host role for the West Regional of the NCAA-II national tournament — rather than dwelling on the season-ending four-set loss to Dixie State of Utah on the Crusaders’ home court in Nampa, Idaho as all four GNAC teams lost in the regional quarterfinals.
“It was a great way to end my career,” Tuholski said. “My team put in a lot of work over this past year, and it all showed on the court. Unfortunately, our season got cut short, but we still made it to the national tournament, which is a great accomplishment. Looking back over my volleyball career, I feel like that’s the best way to go out: an incredible senior season with all my teammates around me. That’s the way to end it.”
The GNAC title was the first team title in a women’s sport in school history, and NNU became the first GNAC team to host a volleyball regional.
NNU was 17-8 then 15-14 in Tuholski’s first two seasons before Doug English replaced Jared Sliger as coach. The Crusaders were 18-6 last year, setting up this fall’s historic season.
“It was definitely a hard loss, but it didn’t ruin the year for that me,” Van Valey said of the loss to Dixie State. “That night, it was hard to see how great a year we had, but even the next day just seeing what we did, it was really cool. It gets me pumped up for next year. It gets me excited to have the opportunity to play one more year.”
End of a career
Tuholski started at NNU as an outside/hitter setter paired with fellow freshman Michelle Terpstra in a “6-2” offense. The two-setter offense was broken up the next season, with Tuholski becoming an outside hitter with Terpstra at setter. English kept that intact in his first season after taking over the program, and it continued early this year before Tuholski was moved to the back row.
“It’s been a learning experience for me,” Tuholski said of her evolving role. “I definitely had to adapt, but I feel like it’s made me a better, more well-rounded volleyball player throughout all of it.”
Position changes are reflected in her statistics, as Tuholski recorded 417 of her 626 career assists as a freshman when she shared setting duties, and had easily her biggest digs year with 307 as a senior playing for the first time as a defensive specialist. Her sophomore season featured her highest seasons in kills (221) and blocks (74).
Showing her versatility, Tuholski played one full match at setter as a junior when Terpstra was out with an injury, recording 48 assists in a four-set win over Montana State-Billings.
“She can do anything,” Van Valey said. “She can do it all on the court, so she’s going to be a huge loss. … She stays level-headed through adversity and through the tough times. That’s something that was huge to me. I always looked to her to stay calm.”
Tuholski is on track to graduate in the spring with education and mathematics degrees. She hopes to teach high school match and someday coach volleyball.
Eager to continue
Van Valey, who also competes in indoor and outdoor track and field for the Crusaders in throwing events, played in 18 of the team’s 90 sets as a freshman, with 15 kills and five blocks. Those numbers shot up to 144 and 46 in her sophomore season, then 163 and 72 this year.
“I wasn’t an impact player on the court, by any means,” she said of her first season before she began starting for new coach English. “It was an amazing year playing under Doug, just growing and getting better, and then this year was an awesome year for all of us.
“We all stepped into our roles and stepped into being the players we could be, and it showed on the court. We were really successful this year. I’m really excited that I have another year — to see how much more I can improve and where we’ll take the team next year.”
Van Valey was named GNAC Defensive Player of the Week in early November, which she said was an unexpected honor but validation of the work she has put in to improve her blocking. That aspect of her game “has definitely been my weakness since high school,” she said.
A social work major, she has been an academic all-conference selection twice in volleyball and last year in track and field — each season she has been eligible for those honors.
“It’s definitely a lot of work, being in season year-round, but I love what I study, so it’s been great,” she said.
Tuholski said that Van Valey “brings a lot of energy and drive to the team,” and she expects her to take a leadership role as a senior.
“She’s an incredible player,” Tuholski said. “She’s someone who helps us remain calm in stressful situations. She’s also a hard worker and will go out and give her all every day on the court.”
Van Valey is looking forward to it.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “I’m so excited for track season and I have really high hopes for how I do this year, but being a part of a team is incredible and I can’t wait for next August to come around.”