By Bud Denega
ADA — There's no debating it, the Ohio Northern volleyball team competed in one of the toughest regions, and conferences, in 2019. And the Polar Bears acquitted themselves quite well, finishing the season inside the top 15 nationally.
"We had a very successful and impactful season both regionally and nationally," ONU head coach Kate Witte said. "Winning the Ohio Athletic Conference regular-season and tournament titles are outstanding accomplishments each year within the OAC, but especially this 2019 season, due to the highly competitive race and talent level of the entire OAC volleyball conference."
The 2019 campaign marked the 19th time the Polar Bears won both the OAC regular-season and tournament championship. That was no small feat considering the OAC had three teams advance to the NCAA Tournament and two others were receiving votes in the top 25 at one time or another.
Northern finished the season with a 27-6 overall record, and that included three victories over nationally-ranked foes. The Polar Bears won 10 of their 11 OAC matches, capping the season with a come-from-behind five-set win over Otterbein in the conference title game.
"This was one the most highly competitive and difficult OAC conference races that I can remember in my 29 years of coaching within the OAC," Witte said. "That made winning both this season even more special and significant to myself, my players and my staff. We took everyone's best shot and still stood tall."
ONU advanced to the NCAA Tournament, dispatched of Aurora (Ill.) in three sets in the first round before falling to No. 3 Calvin (Mich.) in four sets during the second round.
Standout performances are necessary to have a season like the one ONU had, and that list is headlined by senior middle hitter Chelsea Huppert (Bremen, Ind.). She was named a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association and had a career for the record books, literally.
Huppert — who was also named first-team All-Great Lakes Region — had a team-high 355 kills in 2019, which gave her 1,380 for her career, which ranks sixth all-time in program history. She boasted a hitting percentage of .339, and that put her at a .338 for her career, ranking third in ONU history.
Huppert, a first-team All-OAC selection, registered 33 solo blocks this past season, putting her at 125 for her career, which was good enough for third in school history. Her 115 total blocks in 2019 gave her 401 for her career, positioning her fourth all-time in program history.
"It has been a great pleasure and honor to have had the opportunity to coach and mentor Chelsea Huppert for the last four years at Ohio Northern University," Witte said. "Chelsea truly exemplified what a Division III student-athlete represents. She grew so much as a human being both as a teammate and evolving as a leader within her four-year playing career at ONU. Chelsea will be viewed as one of the best middle hitters that we have ever coached at ONU."
Senior libero McKenna Hostetler (Plain City/Alder) was also recognized as an AVCA All-American, being named an honorable mention. She finished the season with a team-high 724 digs and 2,139 for her career, which ties her for fourth all-time in school history.
"McKenna was the heart and soul of the ONU volleyball program during her senior season," Witte said. "McKenna exhibited the toughness and grit that allowed her team to overcome difficult situations on the court when her team had their backs against the wall. She was the catalyst that allowed herself and her team to never stop fighting or giving up."
Hostetler was also named first-team All-Great Lakes Region, while she also reeled in the OAC Libero of the Year award. Senior outside hitters Sydney Bapst (Grove City), and McKenna Jordan (Toledo/St. Ursula), along with freshman middle hitter Madison Kern (Loveland/Mount Notre Dame) were recognized as honorable mention All-OAC.
Senior defensive specialist Kristin Langston (Versailles), junior outside hitter Paige Hartings (Coldwater), junior setter Kate Wade (Battle Creek, Mich./Harper Creek), sophomore defensive specialist Hannah Irmer (Indianapolis, Ind./Roncalli) and sophomore defensive specialist Ava Lam (Carmel, Ind.) all garnered Academic All-OAC honors.
Witte rounded out the special award winners, pulling in the OAC and Great Lakes Region Coach of the Year awards. That provided a fitting end to Witte's decorated career, as she announced her intention to retire before the season began.
"My sincere hope for the ONU volleyball program, after my 29 years of coaching, is that the program continued to grow and evolve each decade," Witte said. "I hope I was able to improve the program's regional and national standing, continue with its excellence academically and athletically and continue to be viewed as a classy program that exhibited integrity on and off the court."
Assistant coach Katie Kuhn will take over next season with a young and talented roster that will look to build on the success the 2019 squad experienced.