The volleyball factory that is Fresno Pacific peeks out from behind a lush forest of mature trees on the east side of Chestnut Avenue in southeast Fresno.
It’s 10 miles from Fresno State on the north end of town — perhaps an even greater distance in the minds of a sporting populace that craves most things Bulldogs.But there is something special, almost unworldly, happening at this Christian university that serves 857 undergraduates.
Dennis Janzen, in his 25th year as coach, has built an NAIA dynasty with a foundation solid enough to withstand the weight of a possible move to NCAA Division II in the next five years.
Schools from Fresno Pacific’s conference, the Golden State Athletic, have been exploring a move to Division II of the NCAA, the most nationally recognized governing body of college athletics.
Conversations between the NAIA and NCAA recently were terminated, Janzen said, but the GSAC has hired a consultant to “visit each school and access what the real numbers and realities are.”
“It’s a process that’s still alive, a fact-finding phase,” he continued. “We’re going to proceed and see where it takes us. There’s no doubt volleyball and our other sports can compete at a high level in the NCAA.”
Senior outside hitter Tiffany Marinos said there are pros and cons in a move to the higher-profile organization.
“Our school could make a lot more money through athletics,” she said, “though there’s the danger of getting caught up in the commercialization of the NCAA. As long as we can stay who we are, I’m all for that.”
The beat goes on
The Sunbirds are the NAIA’s poster child for volleyball and the standard for Fresno Pacific athletics.
Janzen’s teams, a blend of local, outside and international talent, have posted 24 straight winning seasons, captured 15 conference and 12 region titles, and made 11 appearances in the NAIA Final Four — reaching the championship six times and winning it all in 1989, 2003, 2007 and 2008.
The Sunbirds (18-0) are firmly planted at unanimous No. 1 this season after blowing out No. 2 Concordia, then banding together Saturday to outlast No. 3 California Baptist 3-2 two days after friend and classmate Katie Friesen was killed in a traffic accident.
And the Sunbirds have done it competing in what is regarded as the NAIA’s premier volleyball conference: Azusa Pacific is ranked No. 8, Point Loma Nazarene is No. 10 and three other schools are in the top 25.
Opponents probably figured Janzen had a rebuilding year on his hands with 11 new players to break in.
The Sunbirds lost 2008 NAIA Player of the Year Shu Liu and two other All-Americans, but returned the core of All-American middle blocker Lisa Shilling (Clovis), 6-foot-2 Ke Ke Wang (China), Marinos (Exeter), Mariah Mandelbaum (Clovis West) and Lindsay Foglio (Central).
The coaching staff’s recruiting gems for this season have been Mississippi State sophomore transfer Martina Gregusova, a 6-1 outside hitter from Slovakia; freshmen setters Erica Adachi from Brazil and Emily Carroll from Montana; 6-foot-3 freshman Lauren Albertson of Clovis West and 6-1 junior Michelle Johnson from Sacramento City College.
“This is the biggest and most athletic team Dennis has had,” Concordia coach Kyle Kvasnicka said. “They just keep turning out good players and do a great job of evaluating and matching talent.”
Special season afoot
Janzen was so high on this team in August he cautiously remarked that it could become the best in school history.
“In terms of potential,” he was quick to point out. “We have athleticism, talent though young, a deep bench and kids who have the ability to perform mentally at a high level.
“We’re probably a little better than I expected at this point. With that said, can we go into a national tournament and perform five straight days against the country’s best? That’s still to be answered.”
One more new addition, Janzen said, has made a huge difference. Tom Read, an assistant on the 1984 U.S. men’s Olympic gold-medal team, has strengthened the blocking scheme.
“We’re scoring a lot more off defense than we have in the past,” Janzen said.
So, how does the coach of the No. 1 team keep his players fired up when they’re beating teams to a pulp? The Sunbirds have won 54 of 60 sets and Cal Baptist was the lone five-setter (not counting an exhibition victory against Fresno State).
It isn’t easy, said Janzen, guarding against inflating heads.
Said Shilling: “I don’t think that will be the case with this team. It’s an issue of respect for the other team. We push hard all the time to give them our best.”
Mandelbaum, a defensive specialist, added: “We play hard to get big leads so our other teammates can play.”
Marinos talked about the ever-present target on the team’s back. Fresno Pacific has been ranked No. 1 for 29 straight weekly polls.
“It’s even bigger now, but that’s OK,” she said. “There’s a lot of pressure on us, but we like pressure. It lives within us.
“We wake up on game day knowing what day it is. From the first class to Janzen’s 31/2-hour pregame, we’re mentally getting in the right frame of mind.
“And coach always reminds us about ‘the stairs.’ He says, ‘If you look at the top, you’ll fall.’ So we take it one rung at a time. Even in practice, it’s about how hard we work to make us better for tomorrow.”