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Owens volleyball scraps to maintain No. 1 status

Team ranked atop Division II for first time in program history

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    Owens assistant coach Denny Caldwell high-fives players after the team defeated Lorain County Community College in a home match.

    BLADE/LORI KING

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    Owens' Leah Ballenger, 7, jumps to block the ball during a volleyball match against Lorain County Community College.

    BLADE/LORI KING

Tucked away at a small recreation center in Perrysburg, the Owens Community College volleyball team recently has shown more grit in practices than in some of its matches.

That’s because for the first time in program history, Owens (27-0, 9-0) is the No. 1-ranked Division II junior college team in the country. After a monumental five-set win Sept. 26 against longtime rival Parkland, Owens has defended its position as the nation’s best.

Now, the team is rehearsing with more intensity. Coach Sonny Lewis said he knows his program has a target on its back, and with the national championship looming in November, every practice could be make-or-break for avenging its third-place finish in last year’s tournament.

IN PICTURES: Owens volleyball ranked No. 1

“Since beating Parkland, it’s been more competitive in practice,” said Devon Heitkamp, a sophomore middle blocker. “The energy has been a lot higher since we beat them.”

“Us playing each other is the best thing that gets us better,” sophomore libero Niki Polce said. “Our best competition is playing each other.”

Lewis said the program prides itself on building a family atmosphere, often recruiting players from small towns who don’t want to venture far from home. All 12 of the women live together in three houses on campus. Any combination of players will tell you the team hangs out off the court almost as much as on it.

Their match against Parkland — then the top-ranked team in the country — tested that.

The match was part of Parkland’s annual invitational in Illinois, and no team had pushed the tournament hosts to five sets all season. Even then, Parkland still looked like it had control, holding a 12-6 advantage in the decisive fifth set.

But sophomore outside hitter Erika Angstmann accounted for two points in a six-point rally to tie the match, including a service ace and a kill. Parkland ultimately unraveled, and sophomore right side hitter Olivia Hermiller capped the match with a kill.

Owens hadn’t beaten Parkland since 2010, and the Express handed Parkland its first Division II loss since early in the 2015 season.

“You could tell that they weren’t used to playing competition like that,” Polce said. “We knew we were good and everything, but I think after we came out and won that … now we realize how much we can come together as a team and win a big game like that.”

The ultimate goal of the program is to help players decide what’s next after their two years of junior college. Lewis, who’s in his 17th season, said he’s made connections with plenty of Division I programs, but sometimes his players decide volleyball isn’t for them. His staff also will help players decide on a major once they do transfer to a different university.

In the meantime, Lewis said his program converts its members into all-around players. The offense primarily runs through its middle blockers — especially Heitkamp, who has 243 kills this season — but there are six other players with more than 50 kills. Defensively, Polce is the one barking commands and racking up the most digs (358), but four other players also have contributed more than 100 of their own.

“We’re not just setting for one person. We’re trying to get everyone involved,” freshman outside hitter Michaela Eisenhauer said. “Most of us are all-around players.”

The program always has had a high success rate, including two consecutive Ohio Community College Athletic Conference titles and last year’s national tournament finish. But the No. 1 national ranking is unfamiliar territory, and Lewis knows his team carries a new type of target on its back.

“We’re embracing it. This is what you strive to do: Be the best you can,” Lewis said. “We’ve been at the door knocking for the last few years. Now we just stress to our kids that it’s hard to become No. 1; it’s even harder to stay No. 1.”

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