Columbus grad captures national title
By Mike Warren
Part one in a two-part series
MARSHFIELD – “It’s still pretty surreal.” Those were the words of 2017 Columbus Catholic graduate Kendra Baierl of Marshfield, during a Nov. 26 interview with Hub City Times, as she reflected on her run to a national volleyball title with UW-Eau Claire.
Six days earlier, the Bluegolds defeated Calvin (Michigan) in three straight sets to capture the NCAA Division III Women’s volleyball championship at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
“That was probably the most relief I had felt. I just felt so light and free,” Baierl said, remembering the moment the Bluegolds scored their final point to win it all.
Baierl, one of eight “super seniors” who got an extra year of eligibility after the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the 2020 season, said the championship was a goal of theirs after reaching the Final Four in 2018, followed by a disappointing 2019 campaign.
“We had a very strong senior class in 2018,” Baierl recalls. “They were really great players, really great leaders. And, they instilled that championship culture into our program and all of us. There was no doubt in their minds that we could do it, so that kind of gave us all the confidence we needed, and made us want it even more.”
But with no seniors in 2019, Kendra and her fellow juniors were left to lead the team, and she called the experience “a big learning curve all over again without them.”
The Bluegolds still qualified for the NCAA tournament that year, but lost in the first round to Saint Benedict (MN), finishing the season 20-10 overall.
After COVID-19 cancelled the entire 2020 season, Kendra knew she was going back for another shot.
“I was always going to come back for my fifth year no matter what,” she said. “I also knew this group was capable of something special, so there was no way I was not coming back.”
With the team limited to practicing with no games in 2020, Baierl says relationships were tested at times, but also strengthened.
“Everyone was kind of always on edge, but I think that that’s kind of what helped strengthen our relationships, and helped us become the team that we were in 2021.”
To a person, Baierl says every team member had a “championship or bust” mentality heading into the 2021 season, starting before any games were played or practices were held.
“We had decided last spring that our goal was to do everything that we could to win a national championship,” Kendra remembers. “So, it became more important than ever to do your summer workouts, and prepare to come into the season hitting the ground running. Because we hadn’t had any games in 2020, we had to really pack our schedule, because in our minds we were thinking we’re already behind. We need to make up ground.
“So, we all decided and really committed to putting everything we had into our summer training, because we knew that we couldn’t spend August getting back into shape. We had to be in shape and be ready to play, and everyone really did do that.”
And while the players got in shape physically for the 2021 season, Kendra says they also prepared mentally for the long road ahead.
“We wrote our vision, and at the bottom we just said every decision we make from now until November should be in pursuit of winning a national championship. That was always in the back of our minds,” she added.
Coincidentally, the Bluegolds began their season with a tournament at Washington University, the same site as the Elite Eight.
“We said we were going to start and end our season here,” recalls Kendra. “We also made a puzzle, and our big thing was process over outcome – believe in the process and everything else will follow. Don’t focus on winning. Focus on all the little things in between.
“So, we made this puzzle, with a piece for every game of our season. Win or lose, we put a piece up. And there were the perfect number of spaces to win that national championship.”
That national championship is the only one in program history at UW-Eau Claire, and that means a lot to Baierl.
“Of all 52 teams in Eau Claire history, only one of them has this trophy”, Baierl noted, as she looked at her replica version of the much-larger national championship trophy. “And it’s cool to think I did that for all of them, too. All of them have a little piece of that, because I wouldn’t be here without all of them. They made the culture what it is, and sustained that and instilled that championship mindset into all of us. They are the ones that helped me believe that I could do it. And, no matter how many championships Eau Claire goes on to win now, Team 52 will always be the first.”
Baierl registered 10 kills in the national championship match, along with seven in the quarterfinals against Tufts (MA) and 14 in the semifinals against No. 1 seed Juniata (PA.)
In fact, it was Kendra’s 14th and final kill in that five-set thriller that sent the Bluegolds to the national final. “National champion,”however, is not the only title being added to Kendra’s resume this season. She was also named a first-team All-American by the American Volleyball Coaches Association, along with Eau Claire teammates Charlie Nelson and Arianna Barrett. Baierl was also named the 2021 WIAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Next week: From Dribbling Don to national champ