|Hall of Fame - 1994 Volleyball|
Some thought 1994 would be a rebuilding year for the Idaho volleyball team. After winning two straight Big Sky Conference championships, the Vandals lost a trio of first-team all-conference players, including two-time Big Sky MVP Nancy Wicks.
"In 1993 we were awfully good, and we had three great seniors," said Tom Hilbert, who coached the Vandals from 1989-96. "I think a lot of people thought that we were going to be rebuilding that (1994) season."
But the 1994 team had a different mindset. Instead of rebuilding, the Vandals were reloading. The youngsters who played behind Wicks, Dee Porter and Jessica Puckett throughout two championship seasons now were veterans ready to take the reins, and came in to the season better than ever. The Vandals’ achievements that year earned them a place in the Vandal Athletics Hall of Fame.
The departure of Wicks opened the door for Brittany Van Haverbeke, who entered the season ranked third on Idaho's career hitting percentage list. Mindy Rice came into her own as a player coming into the '94 season. She not only let her competitive personality show, but she let it take over. Lina Yanchulova spent the summer of '94 competing in doubles tournaments all over the region, where she truly discovered how to win, and came in to fall camp as a new player.
"In my opinion, you know your team is good when you've got two great outside hitters," said Hilbert, who won four consecutive Big Sky Coach of the Year awards from 1992-95. "So all of the sudden we have this tear of outside hitters, who I thought were way above the rest of the Big Sky Conference."
Hilbert's hunch was correct. Rice and Yanchulova would lead the conference and both finish the season ranked in the top six in the NCAA in kills per game, while Van Haverbeke led the Big Sky in hitting percentage.
On top of that, Lynne Hyland, only a sophomore in 1994, was primed to replace Porter at setter and run Idaho's offense. A task she would not take lightly, as she went on to rank second in the NCAA with 14.5 assists per game. By the time Idaho hosted the SafeCo/Branegan's Classic to open the 1994 season, the Vandals were ready to defend their Big Sky title, and extend their 15-match home winning streak.
"I don't think anyone thought that we would do as well as we did because we had lost so many great seniors from the last season," said Mindy (Rice) Madsen, a second-team All-American in 1994.
The Vandals jumped out to a quick start in '94. They capped their season-opening tournament title with a 3-2 win over Oklahoma in Memorial Gym. It was Hilbert's second win over his alma mater, and the only match out of Idaho's first seven of the season that the Vandals didn't win 3-0.
"First of all, getting a team like that to come to Moscow is difficult to do," Hilbert said. "And then to win the match, that's pretty cool. It's hard to pull those things off. I think when we scheduled it, (Oklahoma) coach (Miles) Pabst probably thought 'We'll beat those guys.' I don't think he realized how good we were going to be."
Idaho first tasted defeat on Sept. 10, 1994 in a 3-1 loss to Wisconsin. But the Vandals wouldn't lose again until Oct. 14. During that stretch Idaho won 11 straight matches, five of those by a 3-0 sweep. The Vandals won all three of their matches at the Cal Poly Invite at San Luis Obispo, Calif., by beating San Diego, Virginia and Cal Poly, which was nationally ranked at the time. The next week, with an 11-1 record, Idaho became the first Big Sky team to be ranked in the top-25.
"We show up as the 25th ranked team. It was pretty ecstatic, we were all running around the department," Hilbert recalled. "And then we stayed in because we kept winning. It was great because we had done some things that were difficult for a Big Sky team to do."
The Vandals helped themselves out with a key win over Washington State less than two weeks later. Memorial Gym saw its largest crowd in history as 1,550 fans packed the gym to see Idaho claim a 3-1 win over the Cougars and extend their home-court winning streak to 20 matches. More than 15 years later, that crowd still stands as the sixth largest to watch a volleyball match in Memorial Gym.
"Beating Washington State in Memorial, that was one of the most satisfying, signature moments of that year," Hilbert said.
According to Hilbert, the fans enjoyed every minute of it as well.
"Some of the students, when we played Washington State, put a cougar on fishing line and stuck the pole out and lowered it into their huddle during a timeout," Hilbert said with a chuckle. "Today that would be frowned upon, but back then it was freaking hilarious."
As great as it was to beat border-rival Washington State, it was Montana, led by former Big Sky Coach of the Year Dick Scott, that presented the biggest challenge to the Vandals inside the Big Sky Conference. Montana snapped Idaho's 11-match win-streak on Oct. 14 with a 3-2 win at Missoula. It was a hard-fought match, in which Idaho lost two of three sets by just two points. In fact, Montana was the only team to take even a single set from the Vandals between Idaho's 3-1 win over Washington State in September and their eventual loss in the second round of the NCAA tournament in December.
"They were gritty kids," Hilbert said of Montana. "Dick Scott was a very competitive guy himself, and they just brought it every time they would play you."
When the Vandals beat Montana 3-1 in the regular-season finale, it was the first Big Sky volleyball match in history between two nationally ranked teams. The Vandals finished the regular season at 29-2 with a 13-1 record in Big Sky play, and hosted the Big Sky Tournament. After handling Weber State 3-0 to advance to the championship match, Idaho was matched up against a nationally-ranked Montana team one more time, this time with the conference championship on the line. After falling behind 2-1 in the championship match, it was make-or-break time for the Vandals. A moment Hilbert still recalls as a defining moment of that season.
"The championship of the Big Sky tournament was, competitively, one of the greatest things I've been involved with," Hilbert said. "They were beating us, and many people thought they were going to win that match, and we mounted a comeback and really showed some toughness."
Idaho posted 15-7 and 15-8 victories with its back against the wall to seal its third straight championship and bid to the NCAA tournament. Idaho's first NCAA opponent was Valparaiso. The match would never be in question as Idaho took the first set 15-2 en route to a 3-0 sweep. Up next was Central Florida. Again, the Vandals took the first set 15-2, and finished the sweep with a pair of 15-5 victories to advance to their second straight NCAA round of 32.
Idaho's next task was to take its 13-match winning streak to Honolulu to face Hawai`i in the Stan Sheriff Center, where the Rainbow Wahine have led the nation in attendance every year since the building opened in 1994.
"Playing in Hawai`i was surreal," said Lina Taylor (Yanchulova). "Even before the match, as we would walk on the streets of Honolulu, random people would stop us and say 'Oh, you are the outside hitter for Idaho, we know all about you.' That's when I knew that volleyball was a religion in Hawai`i."
The Vandals threatened to take the first set, building a lead before Hawai`i clawed back to win 17-15.
"There were 10,000 people at that game and we had the whole crowd silenced when we were up 14-10," Taylor said.
Idaho fell 15-11 and 15-7 in the second and third sets to end its season one win short of the Sweet-16 for the second straight year.
"Losing to Hawai`i was very hard because it was not only the end of our great season, but also the end of my volleyball career," said Madsen. "It was heartbreaking."
"I really felt like I wanted to walk back out there and play them again," said Leah (Smith) Johnson, who led Idaho in digs in '94. "We were so close in every game that it made it hard to accept and admit defeat."
The Vandals finished the 1994 season with a 31-3 overall record, the best in program history, and one of Idaho's two 30-plus win seasons. Idaho earned a No. 19 national ranking in the final polls, and claimed four wins over nationally ranked opponents. The Vandals went 16-0 in Memorial Gym, and extended their home winning streak to 31 matches.
"Memorial Gym was something special. We were so fortunate as players to be able to deliver such a show to our fans," said Taylor. "Years later, when I was playing on the Beach Volleyball World Tour with (two-time Olympic beach volleyball gold medalist) Misty May, she would say 'the one match I dreaded the most was playing at Idaho in Memorial Gym,' I think that says a lot right there."
Tom Hilbert earned his third consecutive Big Sky Coach of the Year honor, and Mindy Rice became the third straight Vandal to be named Big Sky Player of the Year, and the first Idaho volleyball player in history to earn All-American honors. Three Vandals -- Rice, Yanchulova and Van Haverbeke - were named to the six-player all-Big Sky first-team, while Lynne Hyland earned a second-team nod. With 5.25 kills per set, Rice ranked second in the NCAA, while Yanchulova, at 5.20, ranked sixth and Van Haverbeke led the Big Sky with a .347 hitting percentage.
"When you have that many talented players together, you had a special team and of course you had to have a good leader," Taylor said. "That's what made Tom special. One way or another, he could get us going."
The Vandals went on to win their fourth straight Big Sky championship in 1995, their last season in the league. Much of the credit to Idaho's championship era also goes to the teams that paved the way for the Vandals to build a volleyball dynasty in Moscow.
"I know the 1994 team is being inducted, but it started a few years before," Johnson said. "I consider all the players several years before us as part of our success. They all influenced our style of play and we learned a great deal from them as well just by being on the court with them."– By Nick Heidelberger University of Idaho Athletics Media Relations