WJU spikers quest for D2 title continues

Will the third time be the charm? Wheeling Jesuit University’s volleyball team hopes so.

The Cardinals face Wingate at 8:30 tonight in the final national quarterfinal of the day at the NCAA Division II Volleyball Championship at U.S. Cellular Arena in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

For Head Coach Christy Benner and her team, playing in the Elite Eight is becoming old hat. It’s WJU’s third straight appearance.

”It’s still very exciting, very exciting,” Benner said Tuesday, moments before she and the team boarded a plane in Pittsburgh to head west.

”You would think (we’d be used to it). I doesn’t get old. It’s a new and different experience every time.”

Just like her counterpart in men’s basketball up Route 88 at West Liberty – Jim Crutchfield – Benner has built a dynasty in the Atlantic Region.

And, just like Crutchfield, she’s making a name for herself in collegiate coaching circles in her home region – the Ohio Valley.

”The fact that (Matt, her husband and WJU assistant coach) get to coach where we grew up; I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Benner said.

Just like Crutchfield at Cameron High School, Benner also cut her coaching teeth prepwise in Marshall County at Bishop Donahue High School. She served as an assistant and head coach for the Bishops before moving down Route 2 to guide the John Marshall High School program for two seasons before arriving at Wheeling Jesuit.

Since her arrival, she and Matt steadily built the Cardinals into the top program in the West Virginia Conference and, now, the Mountain East Conference.

With a career mark of 381-105, Benner has guided Wheeling Jesuit to 10 undefeated conference regular seasons, including a 16-0 mark in this, the MEC’s inaugural campaign. All told, Benner’s squads have posted a 189-4 record in conference play.

The result has been eight Atlantic Region tournament appearances, including six straight, with the last two played at WJU’s McDonough Center.

”Matt and I have been doing this for 12 years and it’s worked out really well,” Benner said. ”We learn something new every year to take with us into each new season. We want to try to get better and stay at the level we are now.”

That level is a high one and the only way you stay there is by recruiting top talent. And the Cardinals have been blessed in that regard.

”It goes along with recruiting good good student-athletes,” Benner said. ”The administration and the athletic department want us to focus on the court and in the classroom.”

Benner found a gem four years ago when she discovered Jenna Pew at Smithville High School in Marshallville.

Pew has developed into one of the best, if not the best player in school history. Wednesday, the senior was named a third-team Division II all-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. Pew is the second player in school history to be so honored, joining Keysha Allison in 2010.

”Jenna is a rare combination of size, skill, and power,” Benner said. ”She has the ability to play several positions, and play them well.

”She is also an outstanding student and an outstanding person. She couldn’t be more deserving of this award.”

Pew’s latest honor only added to her already long list of accomplishments this season that include MEC Player of the Year and Dakronics Atlantic Region Player of the Year.

”When she made the decision to come to WJU it changed our program,” Benner said. ”She elevated everything.”

Joining Pew on the all-Region squad were junior Makenzie Ripley and freshmen Kayce Krucki, Emma Schleucher and Haley Kindall. Kindall was named the MEC and Region Freshman of the Year.

While the faces have changed during the past decade, the Cardinals’ level of success hasn’t. Benner said things like playing in the Elite Eight have put Wheeling Jesuit on the national stage and helped in the recruiting process.

”It helps get our name out there if you haven’t heard of us,” she said. ”Hopefully, you’ll hear about us now.”

Benner called this season’s freshman class one of the best since she’s been coach. The team’s entire roster is comprised of Ohio talent, sans one player from Temperance, Michigan, which is just a stone’s throw from Toledo, just across the border.

”We’ve been very fortunate with the talent we’ve been able to bring in,” Benner said.

That means the best could still be yet to come for Benner and the Cardinals – a national championship.

”We strive to get better every year and getting (to the Elite Eight) ranks right up there with one of the best things you can do,” she said.

”We’ve accomplished some really great things, but we still have yet to accomplish our No. 1 goal.”

Thorp can be reached at rthorp@timesleaderonline.com