RALEIGH, NC – Most freshmen spend their days either ducking upperclassmen or completely overwhelmed by the speed of collegiate life.
Not Aisja Jones and Tapanga Moten.
The duo and Shaw University will attempt to do something the program hasn't done in more than two decades when the NCAA Division II Round of 32 tournament starts Friday at the Sanford Pentagon in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Be the first volleyball team to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.
"We expected nothing less than getting a championship ring and trophy," said Jones, a former Red Oak High School Lady Hawk. "From the moment we arrived coach said, 'Nobody can beat Shaw but Shaw.' Since that first day, we bonded under the banner hashtag 'ringchasin' because we were determined to make history for our university."
The Lady Bears earned a 21-11 overall record in her second season as well as a runner-up finish in the 2015 Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association Conference (CIAA) Volleyball Championships. On Nov. 20, the Shaw Lady Bears won the first CIAA Championship since the program's 1995-96 season.
Shaw (22-7), which is set to face top-seeded and nationally-ranked Wheeling Jesuit University (38-2) also received the No. 8 seed in the tournament and the university's earned its first-ever berth in the NCAA Division II Atlantic Regional Tournament.
The victory, however, may not be the most interesting step of a journey made by a team that earned a combined 22-30 overall record in Head Coach DiShondra Goree's first two seasons. It may be how two players from the little city of Red Oak helped form one of the most dominant offenses in NCAA Division II and how a team of veterans welcomed a pair of rookies with open arms.
"With those two, they have a natural chemistry," Goree said. "They are a package deal and their energy feeds off of the other's. I had no idea they knew each other when I recruited them or that they would make an immediate impact, but they've both grown a lot during the season.Last season, we had a kind of Cinderella season and skyroketed from 12th to second place without much adversity. This season, we hit a mountain with injuries to my setter and right side and Aisja and Tapanga — my only two true freshman but their unforced camaraderie helped steady those waters and helped our girls bond despite the early losses."
Despite being one of six freshmen — and the only ones from Texas — on the 17-woman team, Jones and Moten are tied for third on the team in kills (153) and are third (1.89) and fourth (1.74) in kills per set, respectively. They have scored 378 of the Lady Bears 1553 points — nearly 25 percent of the team's offensive production this season.
"I am truly blessed to start as a freshman because a lot of coaches don't have that much faith in players new to an offense that early," Moten said. "It's all been kind of a whirlwind, really. When the season started, I didn't really know what to expect because I didn't know anything about the level of talent in college first hand. It wasn't until a couple of games in that we started playing that I knew we had the opportunity to become an unstoppable force."
For Jones, Moten and each of their families, coaches like Goree and veterans like Elizabeth, New Jersey native Nautica Vega and Efland, North Carolina native Tiffany Brooks have become an extended family, despite the team's early stumbles.
Though it began 2016 with an abysmal 0-5 record and failed to win a single set during that timeframe, Shaw won 22 of its next 24 games — including a pair of 14- and six-game win streaks in which the Lady Bears outscored their opponents in sets 36-4 and 18-2, respectively.
In 29 games, Jones and Moten may not have been the maroon and gold engines that drove, Shaw to its historic heights, but they were the fuel-injected shots the program needed to shut out six straight teams between Sept. 22 and Oct. 2. WhileJones dug 147 balls in 81 sets, good for third place, Moten posted 62 blocks, including 32 solo for an average of .71 blocks per set, and led all players in the statistical category.
A large part of their success, Jones said, has to do with how Hope Porter, the head volleyball coach at Red Oak, prepared them to handle the rigors of college volleyball and life on its grand stage.
"Tapanga and I talked about her a lot during this season and how she really prepared us for college ball," Jones continued. "From running to all the things she had taught us about the game really helped when it came to practices and games. We didn't understand then why we did so much running, why she punished us for certain things or was so demanding of her players. Once we got to college, we understood why. This is a whole other level filled with an unbelievable pressure that will sneak up on you if you aren't ready. Without her, we wouldn't have been able to be a part of Shaw history."