You could not attend a Pepperdine volleyball match this year.
Perhaps if the Waves get through to the NCAA Tournament regionals, and if you’re lucky enough to be in the 25 percent capacity allowed in Omaha, you would hear it.
Whether you do or do not attend, however, makes only a small bit of difference when it comes to determining whether or not Rachel Ahrens is at the service line. All you really need to do is pause somewhere in the same zip code and take a listen.
The sound will tell you everything you need to know.
“Anyone who walks by the gym and who hears her hit, you don’t even have to see it, it just commands attention,” coach Scott Wong said of Ahrens, a 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter named to the all-West Coast Conference first team.
If it doesn’t command your attention, well, that would make for an awfully big problem. Even when it does command the full attention of the opposing team and its coaches — note: it invariably does — there is little hope in fully stopping Ahrens from the service line. Even in 2019, a season in which Ahrens claims she “just went for it,” from the service line, that “it could have gone anywhere,” she tallied 49 aces, setting the Pepperdine single-season record.
This year, despite not finding her service rhythm — a potential side effect of COVID delaying the season until January as opposed to its usual August start date — until the 10th match of the year, against Gonzaga on March 5, Ahrens has still racked up 32 aces. In the first nine matches, she served only four aces. In the 10 since? Twenty-eight, nearly averaging one ace per set.
“This season, I have a lot more confidence in it,” said Ahrens, a 6-foot-4 native of Trabuco Canyon, California. “I go back there with the intention of getting an ace. I think now that I’m more confident in my serve, I can have that mindset of ‘OK, I’m going to ace this’ and be able to serve it over. My whole mindset has changed where I’m going for an ace and not hoping just to get it over.”
That last bit is likely somewhat humorous to anyone who has seen her serve. Rachel Ahrens? One of the best servers in the country? The best to come through Malibu, one of the more prestigious programs on the West Coast? Simply trying to get the ball over the net?
Then again, the fact that Rachel Ahrens is at Pepperdine at all is its own comically winding journey.
The little Christian private school sitting high atop the hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with an enrollment of just over 3,600 undergraduates, was actually the first college Ahrens visited. She was in eighth grade. Like most any excited pre-teen might be, she was smitten, verbally pledging to her mother on the spot that she was committed to become a Wave.
“You’re young,” her mother, Julia, advised her. “You gotta keep your options open and look around.”
She did just that, eventually committing to West Coast Conference rival LMU, until a coaching change prompted her to reneg. With her options open once more, again, she chose a school outside of Malibu, signing her National Letter of Intent with Cal — until another coaching change prompted her to reneg on that commitment as well.
Which left the backup to her backup: Pepperdine University.
Her time in Malibu has been at once the greatest three years and three years of breathtaking bad luck, nightmares of the fictional sort.
Ahrens, and the rest of the Waves, have endured record-setting fires, shootings, and, now a global pandemic. She has yet to have what can wistfully be labeled as a “normal year.”
And yet, through it all, there’s Ahrens, using the words “grateful” or “gratitude” more than serve or ace or pass or any other volleyball term throughout a 20-or-so minute interview. And it’s real, that gratitude, an unexpected benefit of attending a school that requires 14 hours per semester of convocation, which is essentially faith-based studies.
“I’m so, so grateful that God put me on this journey getting me to Pepperdine and really helping me rebuild our relationship with Him,” Ahrens said. “It’s been incredible. I see life in a whole new perspective now. Everything I have I see as a blessing from God and that frees up a lot of areas in your life. You just become more grateful and you approach each day with a grateful heart and a grateful mindset and it helps you get through those times.”
That gratitude, the foundational trait upon which Wong has built this Pepperdine team, has helped them endure fires and shootings and pandemics and more adversity than most athletic programs should ever be burdened with. Comparatively speaking, an NCAA Tournament match really isn’t quite the life or death scenario it’s often made out to be.
“We just tried to make the most of what we did have,” Wong said. “Looking back now, we’ve done this a few times, and it’s all about gratitude: How are we grateful for what we have now? I think it’s a great perspective always if you’re coming from gratitude. There’s been a lot of things for resilience and the gratitude component, I think that’s helped our team.”
That team is 16-3, owners of an at-large bid in this year’s NCAA Tournament. The Waves, whose only WCC losses were to BYU and San Diego, also in the tournament, have made it to Omaha for a variety of reasons, of course, though Ahrens, her serve, and her mindset, are certainly no small influence. It is an enormous benefit, in a single-elimination formation tournament, to have a server such as Ahrens. The type who can take any team — a Baylor or Nebraska or Wisconsin or Texas — out of system, who can engineer two-, three-, four-point runs, who can change the entire narrative of a match.
What’s more, Ahrens leads Pepperdine with 324 kills (4.44/set), averages 1.14 digs, and had 35 blocks.
Senior Shannon Scully, a product of Huntington Beach, and also a WCC first-teamer, has 237 kills (3.25/set), 23 aces, and is second on the team with 233 digs (3/19/set) and has 28 blocks.
The team digs leader with 315 (4.32/set) is WCC libero of the year Madison Shields, a junior from El Dorado Hills, California. Meg Brown, the WCC freshman of the year and also a first-teamer, leads with 63 blocks, nine solo, and has 175 kills.
“Rachel can be a take over the match type of player,” Wong said. “Her ball control is good, she can shut down big hitters as a blocker, defensively she can move and control some hard hits and then serving — she’s been developing this serve that can control and take over matches, sometimes from being down to sealing a game and going on a three-, four-point run. It’s pretty amazing what Rach has done.”
Pepperdine plays UMBC (11-9), which won the America East, and the winner moves on to play 12th-seeded Baylor of the Big 12. Interestingly, Pepperdine played at and lost to Baylor in five on February 28.
UMBC, the Retrievers, beat Albany in the AE final, as Darina Kumanova led with 22 kills, two aces, 17 digs, and three blocks, one solo. Kumanova, a 6-foot freshman from Bulgaria, is second on the team with 175 kills, three behind Dutch senior Anouk Van Noord.
Ayhan Beste, a freshman from Turkey, leads with 51 blocks and also had 60 kills while hitting .326. Loren Teter, a grad-student transfer from San Diego State (where she also led the Aztecs in digs in 2019), leads with 231 digs and has 48 assists and also a team-high 17 aces. The setter is Aysia Miller, who averaged 10.80 assists and 2.54 digs.