November 2, 2012

Members of The Master’s College women’s volleyball team are treading on unfamiliar ground these days, and that can only mean one thing. Events are unfolding according to plan.

Bobby Blanken, who took over a struggling Lady Mustangs volleyball program in 2010, came to turn a team around, and to do that, he knew he had to change the culture. He had to instill in his players a new way of thinking about their sport. He had to get them to buy into a mission – a big mission.

“Sports is just a great metaphor about the Christian life and how you can live it on a minute-by-minute basis,” Blanken says. “Our mission is achieving excellence. And for us, excellence is defined by winning a national championship.”

Blanken has his team pointed in the right direction. As of November 1, the Lady Mustangs are the No. 7-ranked NAIA team in the nation, according to the Tachikara-NAIA Volleyball Coaches’ Top-25 poll.

The Mustangs’ record of 23-4 is even more impressive than it looks. Two of the team’s losses have come at the hands of No. 4-ranked Biola. One other loss was to Concordia, which currently sits atop the coaches’ poll. In their last two matches, TMC beat No. 21 Vanguard, 3-0, and then traveled to Santa Barbara, where the Mustangs bested No. 12 Westmont, 3-2.

With four regular-season matches remaining before the NAIA National Tournament, the Mustangs seem to be peaking at the right time.

“We’re playing not to plateau … to not be satisfied to be where we are,” Blanken says. “It’s about where we’re going. The goal at the end of the season is to play the best we could have played, and hopefully that’s in the national championship.”

If Blanken keeps repeating a familiar refrain, it’s because he believes in aiming high. From his perspective, high isn’t just the noblest target. It’s the only target. It’s a philosophy that’s rooted deeply in his spiritual moorings. He sees excellence as a way to honor the Lord.  And excellence, he believes, is a minute-by-minute commitment.

“We have an identity and we have a mission,” he says. “To boil it down, our identity is fundamental execution. I know it’s a cliché, but to be honest, that’s what it’s going to be about. Serving tough, passing well, choosing the attack lines and staying aggressive.

“Behind all of that is a commitment to a team mission. It really binds us together, whether we’re in good place or a bad place. We can look back on that as our anchor. We’re tethered to the team mission.”

The players are also tethered to a shared faith – that and a desire to live out that faith on the volleyball court.

During the course of a match, there will be moments that test a team’s character and its resolve. A call goes the wrong way. A set misses the mark. A pivotal serve falls into the net. In volleyball, the potential for despair is never more than a point away. It is in these moments, Blanken says, that preparation becomes most important.

“I’m not a big motivational speaker. I’m not going to give a Braveheart speech,” he says. “I try to help them understand that whatever the chaos is in their minds, it’s not as big as they think it is … The girls have been committed. They want to succeed. They understand it’s a habit they have to form. It dedicated, hard work.”

The team’s record testifies to the success of Blanken’s approach and the commitment of his players. Just don’t expect anyone associated with the team to start patting themselves on the back. That doesn’t jibe with the team philosophy.

“In terms of an overall sense of completion, I don’t know that we’ll ever feel that,” Blanken says. “Maybe the day we hoist a national championship banner, I don’t know. But overall we get that it’s more about a process than an overall outcome.”

On Tuesday, Nov. 6, The Mustangs will get a good look at where they are in that process when they host Concordia at Bross Gymnasium for a 7:00 p.m. match. The No. 1-ranked Eagles (27-0) beat TMC in Irvine on Oct. 4, but the Mustangs did manage to take a game. On Nov. 6, they will be looking to take three.

Regardless of the outcome, Blanken will put his players to the same questions by which he always measures success: Are you satisfied with the way you played? Did you feel like you gave your best? Did we do the things we’ve been practicing and training for?

For a coach who hates to lose, hearing the right answers to those questions is crucial. For a coach in the midst of building a program, the answers must always be yes.

“I can’t stand the idea of losing and I’m not sure that a team defined by losing is excellent,” Blanken says. “The biggest challenge is building the program – laying a foundation. It’s for the girls to understand they are building a legacy.”