Through many obstacles and distractions brought forth by the coronavirus, the Louisville women’s volleyball team won the ACC title after winning their last 10 games and finishing with a 14-2 record. The Cardinals’ dominance on the court resulted in various all-conference honors and awards. Amaya Tillman (Defensive Player of the Year), Tori Dilfer (Setter of the Year), Anna DeBeer (Freshman of the Year), and Dani Busboom Kelly (Coach of the Year) highlighted the program’s individual accolades.
Although valued, team success holds more weight than individual awards and recognitions for the Louisville program.
“It was surprising because I think that we are a team that doesn’t focus on awards or honors,” Dilfer explained. “Everyone is doing their jobs for the team’s success. It was really cool to hear and a little emotional realizing that we have a lot of individual awards, though.”
Dilfer was named as the Setter of the Year after racking up 492 total assists this season; her 10.93 assists per set average ranked 16th in the nation, and first in the ACC. For the Los Gatos, Ca. native, the award was more so a testimony to her teammates, than it was to herself.
“To me, if you’re named setter of the year, that means that you have really good passing and hitters that put the ball away on your team,” Dilfer said. “You don’t get an assist without solid passing, to where you can put the ball in a good place for the hitters to put it away.”
Tillman echoed Dilfer’s sentiments when it came to team success leading to individual awards.
“I was pretty excited,” said the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. “I have two people on the sides of me helping me block. It’s not just an individual award for me, but a team award instead. We are all really excited for each other and for Dani for being named Coach of the Year.”
Tillman ranked third in the NCAA with 1.65 blocks per set, while the Louisville team as a whole led the nation with 3.25.
“Having a vocal presence is something that really helps with my blocking, and all of us communicating with each other makes a difference and really sets us apart from other teams,” Tillman added.
The Cardinals have a surplus of leadership on the court, but it all starts with the head of the program. Both a national champion as a player and a coach at Nebraska, Busboom Kelly became the head coach at Louisville in 2016. For the team’s players, her style of coaching and the passion she brings to the program are contagious.
“She (Busboom Kelly) was one of the big factors as to why I chose Louisville,” DeBeer said. “She really works on player relationships. Coming into the gym every day, she always has the right things to say that make you always want to work hard.”
Winning a handful of state and national championships at Assumption High School in Louisville, DeBeer represents one of the biggest volleyball recruits in the city’s history. Staying home and playing for the Cardinals was one of the main recruiting pitches that Busboom Kelly used to in efforts to land the six-foot outside hitter.
“I think it’s really cool,” DeBeer said. “Dani really emphasized before I committed that it would be super cool to play for my hometown. I don’t think I realized until I got closer to making my decision that it would be unbelievable to play in the city that I grew up in, around my family and friends all the time. I think over the new few years it will be even cooler to play in front of the home crowd.”
The conference Freshman of the Year ranked second on the team with 146 kills, trailing only Aiko Jones, who tallied 153. Like her two other teammates who brought in top awards, DeBeer was quick to credit her teammates.
This season has been anything but normal, for not only the Louisville volleyball team but for sports in general nationwide. The Cardinals played seven matches in the fall of 2020 before being off until March 6th of this year.
“It felt like two different seasons,” Dilfer explained. “The two-month break almost felt like an offseason, but we all knew that it was going to be a personal responsibility for every single player to take care of themself, work hard, and get better in different ways; but also take time to rest. If we would’ve just grinded those two months, we would’ve been a little too fatigued in this portion of this season.”
On top of the split of the schedule into two parts, Louisville was the victim of various postponements and cancellations.
“It has made our season difficult,” Tillman said. “We’ve had many cancellations and games postponed due to COVID. The biggest distraction was having to stay focused because we had three to four weeks in a row of games getting postponed. To keep everyone excited, we would have a team scrimmage or do something fun when a game was postponed.”
Despite the distractions, the team has not had any troubles staying grounded. “We’re just focusing on the same things that we’ve been doing,” DeBeer said, “Over the last few months, we’ve been really focused on our end goal. We’re just going to keep working in the gym and preparing ourselves mentally.”
Louisville is the 11th-overall seed in the NCAA tournament field, and will take on the winner of San Diego and Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on April 15th at 12:00. The tournament will be held in a bubble in Omaha, Nebraska. The Cardinals are looking to make some noise after reaching the Elite Eight in 2019.
“Having a year of experience with a majority of the roster is huge,” Dilfer said. “Last year we were a new team that was inexperienced when it came to being deep in the tournament. I had never played in the tournament before then and almost the majority had not as well.”
Even with the national seed, Louisville continues to utilize the underdog title.
“We were able to play with a chip on our shoulder (last tournament),” Dilfer explained. “We always had the underdog-mentality and we were the “upset queens”. Having that experience this year gives us the opportunity to use what we learned, but I don’t think that our mentality has changed. We find ways to make ourselves the underdog; I still feel like we are one since we aren’t a storied program yet with all these national championships. We play best when we feel as if we still need to prove ourselves, which I believe we do.”
Whether it is crediting individual awards to team play or looking to prove themselves, the Cardinal volleyball program truly epitomizes the ‘Louisville First’ mindset.