CSU Women’s Volleyball Team Enjoys Historic Accomplishment

With a program-best season secured in the record books, Chicago State University’s women’s volleyball team may have created a foundation for success for years to come.  Chicago State finished the season with a record of 17-11, including a Western Athletic Conference (WAC) record of 9-5 – good enough for third place in the West Division. In the three seasons prior, Chicago State won just 16 games total, with last season being particularly challenging with a 1-9 record and zero conference victories in a COVID-19 shortened season. This year’s team won the most games since Chicago State women’s volleyball became a Division I program in 1988, according to a WAC press release.

Second-year head coach Tony Trifonov told The Chicago Defender following Chicago State’s final game of the season, a four-set defeat to Bradley University in the 2021 National Volleyball Invitational at the Jones Convocation Center on Dec. 2, that he was hired to change the direction of the program.

CSU Volleyball Chicago Defender“It means a lot to go from last place to third seed in the [conference] tournament and we finished top three in conference and, obviously, making the postseason, that’s huge for Chicago State,” said Trifonov. “It’s been an incredible season. The girls played really, really hard and they need to be proud of the season that they had.”

Looking back over the season, Trifonov said his team achieved their goals and met expectations. He said he wants to build on the foundation laid this year as all of the current players are expected to return for another season.

In a season filled with high points, one of the seminal moments was a three-set victory over Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind. on Sept. 17, said Trifonov. He said from that point forward his team improved in all facets of the game, especially in terms of their on-court chemistry and resiliency.

A few of Chicago State’s winter athletic programs have had similar big wins early in their respective seasons. Chicago State’s women’s basketball team defeated the University of Wisconsin 71-63 on Nov. 22 in Madison, WI. Recently, the men’s basketball team defeated Tennessee State University 59-49 at the Jones Convocation Center on Dec. 4.

Chicago State University athletic director Charles Elliott said the women’s volleyball team is a great example of what they as an institution are striving for.

“I think the season this year has been all about cultural creation,” said Elliott. “Volleyball is a great example of what we’re trying to strive towards here in athletics. There is an extreme focus on the student-athlete experience. There’s an extreme focus by the volleyball team in just setting an example for competitiveness. I think that was recognized by the WAC, our conference, here in our last year in the WAC. it’s just phenomenal to see it come to a point where CSU can host a national championship event to where we can just represent well for Chicago State and the community.”

The Cougars’ on-court excellence was recognized by the WAC as Trifonov was named WAC Coach of the Year and redshirt sophomore outside hitter Yanlis Feliz was named WAC Player of the Year. Feliz, a native of Pedernales, Dominican Republic, broke Chicago State’s single-season kills record (540) set by Stacy Cole in 2004. That’s not all. She led the WAC in kills per set at 5.25 and finished the season fifth in the nation in total kills.

Trifonov credited his team’s hard work when asked about what it meant to him to be named WAC Coach of the Year. He arrived at Chicago State with several accolades on his resume including two coach of the year honors at the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) Division I level while at Seward County Community College – which is among the reasons why Elliott said he recruited him to Chicago State.

“Obviously, to be selected by other coaches as a coach of the year it’s a great accomplishment,” he said. “But again, it’s not about me, it’s about the team. If it wasn’t for the team’s accomplishments, I wouldn’t be the coach of anything. All of the credit goes to my players for playing this hard and getting us to a position to be successful.”

Feliz, a redshirt sophomore majoring in tourism who followed Trifonov to Chicago State from Seward after being named to NJCAA DI Volleyball All-America First Team in her freshman year. She told The Defender she was happy with herself as well as her teammates for their great season because of all of the hard work they put in together. She credited Trifonov for his consistent coaching as she moved from playing from the right side of the court to the left –  a new position for her.

“I’m super excited because this is my first time with a [award] like this, this is super promising for me,” she said. “[Trifonov] helped all the girls because we need to play really good. We need to win. We need to work more hard in the spring because next season is a new division, maybe a new conference, and we want to win. All of my teammates want to win and we need to work really hard.”

Not all of the Cougars’ success was on the court; in fact, unity and growth among the players were key off the court. Redshirt junior Nailah Jones, an outsider hitter for the Cougars this season from South Holland, Ill., was proud of how her team as diverse as hers was able to come together. Chicago State’s roster includes athletes from countries around the globe such as the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Turkey, Colombia, Peru, and the United States. As the team gelled, Jones’ expectations of what could be possible on the court expanded after the first month of practicing.

CSU Volleyball Chicago Defender“The whole team has come a very long way. Starting off, we have a lot of girls with a lot of different backgrounds, who speak a lot of different languages. So, I’m just really proud of how we were all able to come together and build off of each other and form team chemistry and stuff. I just think it’s amazing. Everyone’s improved a lot,” said Jones, who played on the 2016 IHSA Class 3A State volleyball championship team at Marian Catholic High School.

Jones, a chemistry major at Chicago State, said she decided to transfer from the University of California, Riverside to play for the Cougars because she was homesick, wanted smaller class sizes, etc. The redshirt junior said she and her teams have “a lot to prove” looking ahead to next season.

“I feel like next year they’re going to come in with a chip on our shoulder and ready to go straight from the jump,” said Jones. “No questioning how good we will be, having low expectations, nothing like that. I feel like this team is going to take off and do better this year, actually.”

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Trifonov will be able to hit the recruiting trail in earnest for the first time in his tenure as head coach at Chicago State. He called the Midwest a “gold mine for junior volleyball” specifically naming Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

One of Trifonov’s goals is in plain view: he said he wants to grow the sport of volleyball on the South Side of Chicago.

“We have great facilities and now with a little more success we want to fill those stands,” said Trifonov.

Chicago State Conference Search Update

AD Charles knows he’s on the clock; Chicago State University has already announced its exit from the WAC in Summer 2022 but has yet to name a new home conference.  So, he’s gotten busy.

Charles told The Chicago Defender Southland Conference commissioner Tom Burnett along with current deputy commissioner Chris Grant, the next commissioner of the Southland Conference, visited campus a few weeks ago. Ohio Valley Conference commissioner Elizabeth DeBauche visited Chicago State’s campus as well. Next, he said he’s anticipating a visit from a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC) representative, too.

“This is the culmination of a year plus work of outreach to do different presidents and chancellors from throughout the country,” said Charles about his early progress. “We’re just being really open-minded about what makes sense for us as an institution.”

Yet, being independent, like, Notre Dame, is not currently under consideration.

“Well, Notre Dame is independent and just football, right? And that’s because they have a massive TV contract, right? And they have a tradition related to their scheduling,” said Charles. “I think that you know, being independent is an opportunity for any NCAA institution. But at the end of the day, I think that having that connection, that regional connection, that mission, and values-based connection, across as many programs as you can, makes the most sense.”

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