By Bob San
Maple Grove High School graduate Mallory Johnson and her University of St. Thomas volleyball team made history when they defeated Calvin (Mich.) College, 13-25, 17-25, 25-18, 25-16, 15-9, Saturday, Nov. 24, in Holland, Mich., to win the NCAA Division III volleyball championship.
Johnson is a 5-11 sophomore middle blocker for the Tommies, who won their last 35 matches in a row to win the school’s first national title and also became the first team from the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference to win the national championship in volleyball. They finished the year 40-1.
Johnson was a four-year varsity player and two-time all-conference selection while playing for the Crimson. After graduating from Maple Grove, Johnson joined St. Thomas’ volleyball program under the leadership of coach Thanh Pham.
Johnson and Pham had crossed paths while she was playing club volleyball so Johnson knew there was a spot for her on the St. Thomas team. She decided to enroll at St. Thomas because she liked the fact that St. Thomas is only 30 minutes from Maple Grove and is a school with strong academics plus a great volleyball program.
“I went to St. Thomas for academics but I still want to play volleyball,” Johnson said. “I like Pham’s coaching style and philosophy and he is all about student-athlete. I like the academics and the school is close to home. Everything just seems right. Playing volleyball is the cherry on top.”
Especially after Johnson experienced the magical march to the national championship with her UST teammates in late November. Even though Johnson is a reserve, she still cherished the opportunity.
“It’s unexplainable. It’s the best experience anybody could have,” Johnson said of playing for the Tommies. “We are sisters and family. There is no drama, we have each other’s back and we trust each other. Even though I don’t play a lot, I do feel part of the team because we pushed them so hard in practice every day that you feel you are the reason that they are so good.”
Coach Pham values the contributions of the reserves and says they played key roles in the team’s success.
“Players like Mallory played pivotal roles in our championship run,” Pham said. “Like the rest of our team, they think team first and understand that they need to work hard everyday to make us the best we can be. They are reserve players that practice hard everyday as if they were starting. They also pushed the starters everyday in practice, which helps us have intense practices. Like many of our starters, they too had to start as a reserve and I am confident when their number is called, they will be ready. We are fortunate to have a very deep team and with players like Mallory, we will be competitive for years to come.”
The strong team bond and a deep roster were reasons the Tommies managed to hang together in tight matches. Nicknamed the Comeback Kids, the Tommies had several come-from-behind wins in the MIAC tournament, including the semifinal match against Carleton when they were down 4-10 in the fifth and deciding game and rallied to win. The come-from-behind win in the national championship match seemed like a fitting end to their magical season.
““To be down two sets, in that environment, and to be able to pull out the win speaks volumes about our girls and how much they wanted it,” said Pham. “This team won 40 of 41 matches this year and won the national championship but it’s not the most talented team I’ve had. I had teams with more talent but this team is stubborn and it refuses to lose. I watched some of the matches when we were down, and I said, ‘How did we win this?’ This team is gritty.”
Johnson will enjoy the historic national championship for a while.
“It still hasn’t truly sunk in yet,” she said. “I am still like, ‘Wow, we are the first MIAC team to do this.’ Way down when I have kids I can tell them that I am part of St. Thomas history.”