A team is not just a collection of athletes and coaches. The bonds and relationships needed to comprise a championship-caliber squad don’t come easily and sometimes a star player gets used to taking on the brunt of the responsibility.
For TWU, its talent is evenly spread, so finding the ideal mixture for winning has had its ebbs and flows. When the Pioneers took the court in the Lone Star Conference tournament on Nov. 21 without their head coach Shelly Barberee, their confidence and trust was shaken, but still prevalent.
“I wasn’t able to see the first game [against Texas A&M-Kingsville], but I was able to see the semifinal game against Angelo State,” Barberee said. “It was an emotional time for my kids as well because they saw me and I wasn’t there with them. I haven’t missed a game in 17 years of coaching and those were my first matches to miss. I think emotion had a lot to do with it.”
Barberee couldn’t be in Canyon with her team because she was tending to her sister, who was battling a rare skin disease called Scleroderma, nearly eight hours away in Austin. Angie Gault died Nov. 24.
Despite her absence, however, Barberee’s team was able to draw upon the trust they built earlier in the season and play with a relatively comparable amount of confidence in light of the situation.
“Two weekends ago was a very emotional weekend for us,” junior setter Kayla Rivero said. “We are a team and not having our coach there was a big upset to us. We knew that when we went back to see her sister, we had a job to do and that was to get to the next round and we did. She was still with us.”
The Pioneers defeated A&M-Kingsville to advance to the semifinals, where they lost to rival Angelo State in five sets, but the first-round victory gave Barberee her school-record 192nd win of her career, even without being in Canyon. Despite her lack of proximity, that didn’t stop her from coaching.
“We face-timed with her on the iPad at the hotel, and without her saying something, we knew she’d be watching the feed and stats and probably getting kicked out of the hospital for yelling too loud,” senior middle blocker Erica Humbach said. “She trusted us with it. We knew she was there.”
With Barberee back on the sidelines for today’s quarterfinal match against Angelo State in the NCAA Division II South Central Regional Championships at West Texas A&M in Canyon, the family is back together, but Barberee said they weren’t always a tight-knit family.
After a upset loss to Kingsville at home on Oct. 4, Barberee knew that if the most talented team in her tenure was going to become the team she thought they were capable of being, that it was going to be the players’ responsibility to solidify the team, not the coaching staff.
“I told them I wasn’t going to talk because I knew there was tension, and if you’re not getting along, it can destroy a championship team,” Barberee said. “There was something that was going on that wasn’t being talked about. We had some captains step up and talk from their heart. I really think, after that, we became more of a team and they started playing for each other and not just themselves. That really changed the dynamics of our team.”
From Rivero’s perspective, the team learned then what was necessary to accomplish their goals, which they needed to redefine halfway through their season.
“We shouldn’t have lost that game,” Rivero said. “That meeting came at a good point in the season for us. It wasn’t super early or super late. We were able to step back and we said that we wanted to win conference, but that wasn’t an attainable goal, so we had to rethink our goals. I think the big part we walked away from with was that our communication has to be there all the time. Regardless if you’re best friends with them off the court, you have to respect the player next to you. The only way we can be successful as a team and as individuals, you have to go all out.”
Looking back, Humbach says the hurdles have only galvanized the team even more.
“Seeing us at the beginning of the season, we knew were going to be strong, but we didn’t really know the obstacles we were going to have to overcome to get to where we are,” Humbach said. “Now that we’ve seen what we can make it through, it’s going to make us that much better on the court. I think our intensity will grow and I think we can beat anybody we face this weekend.”
Since Barberee’s coaching moment, or lack of, the Pioneers have shown her they have what it takes to defeat Angelo State and advance to the national tournament in Iowa. In fact, in Barberee’s eyes, the family is as tight and the future is as bright as it’s ever been.
“All we were trying to accomplish was to get them to step up to their potential, and this team right now is playing to their potential,” Barberee said. “We are a great team. We’re not just a good team. I’ve been doing it for 17 years and I told them at the beginning of the season after our second tournament [that] ‘this is by far the most talent I’ve had on the court at one time.’”
PATRICK HAYSLIP can be reached at 940-566-6873 and via Twitter at @PatrickHayslip.