40 in 40 - 1980's Volleyball Dominance
Celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Title IX, wmubroncos.com takes a look at 40 key moments/females in the history of women's athletics at Western Michigan University. Though the selection process, an effort was made to highlight a moment and player/coach from each of our current women's sports programs, as well pay respect to our women's legacy sports. A different feature will be released each of the 40 days, July 24 through Sept. 1.
1980's Volleyball Dominance
Seven Consecutive NCAA Tournaments 1983-89
99-Match MAC Win Streak
Hosted 1985 NCAA Championship at Read Fieldhouse
The 1980s represent the halcyon days for the Western Michigan volleyball program, a time that showed off the major commitments the University and Kalamazoo communities had made to the program.
It didn't hurt that the Broncos were in the middle of one of the most dominant stretches in Mid-American Conference history, in ANY sport, either.
For a span of seven seasons beginning in 1983 and ending in 1989, the Broncos were a force on the national level, making it to seven consecutive NCAA Tournaments. They won an incredible 99 consecutive regular season MAC matches between 1982-89; for the sake of comparison, the second-longest streak in MAC volleyball belongs to Ohio, who collected 52 consecutive conference victories.
According to Paul Morgan, the excitement for the program spread like wildfire during the 1983 season. A semi-retired freelance journalist, Morgan has covered the Broncos volleyball program since the late 1970's for the Kalamazoo Gazette.
"The area had never seen anything like it," said Morgan. "There was great high school volleyball here in the 1970's and 1980's, which kindled the interest. Because of the great interest in high school volleyball, and once the Broncos started winning, things snowballed to the point that WMU was drawing huge crowds. It was a very word-of-mouth kind of growth."
The Broncos were also in the national spotlight during this era, hosting NCAA Tournament matches at University Arena four different years during the run. In fact, the Broncos recorded the program's first ever NCAA Tournament win in front of the hometown fans, when WMU defeated #7 Nebraska 3-1 on December 3, 1983. That would be the season in which the Broncos reached the Elite Eight round, the farthest the team has ever progressed in an NCAA Tournament event.
The Broncos of this era still dominate the record books. Three-time All-American and WMU Athletics Hall of Famer Sarah Powers graduated in 1986 as the all-time leader in kills, Jackie Backus was named First Team All-MAC three straight years from 1981-83, and Laurie Maierhofer earned a pair of All-MAC honors herself. Other players, like Katherine Werme, Paige Paulson, and Char Horcher, played important roles in the team's success.
"Almost any of them could be Hall of Famers," said Morgan. "It wasn't just the stars, either. The role players were just as important."
The nation took notice of the passionate volleyball fans of Kalamazoo, and in 1985 University Arena hosted the national championship match between Pacific and Stanford. The event was significant not just because of the national championship implications, but also because it was just the second NCAA volleyball tournament championship match to be staged outside of California.
"It was one of the first times the NCAA took this match east of the Rocky Mountains," said Morgan. "The sport was more or less regarded as a California, West Coast thing, but the NCAA wanted to increase its prominence across the country. When they saw the way Western Michigan was able to draw fans to Read Fieldhouse, they decided to give it a shot."
The response was staggering. Fans flocked to WMU's campus, with nearly 7,800 fans piling into Read Fieldhouse for both the semifinals and finals of the tournament, despite the fact the Broncos had since been eliminated. According to Morgan, the shockwaves of that moment can still be felt in Kalamazoo.
"Those teams really sparked many of the young girls in this area; more and more were taking up volleyball as opposed to other sports. It's pretty incredible to see. So many of the young women that pick up the game now are the daughters, nieces, or relatives of the women from that time period."