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Full Article

Serving Up Excitement

One of the most exciting stories in Western Michigan University’s athletic history unfolded in the fall of 1983. Ten young women, WMU’s volleyball team, captured the support of tens of thousands of Kalamazoo sports fans by posting a record of 30 wins without a defeat and earning a berth in the NCAA championship tournament.

The team was coming off a strong 1982 season in which they had finished first in the Mid-American Conference. They then won the post-season MAC tournament and went on to the first round of the NCAA championship, where they were defeated by Brigham Young University.

Six players, three seniors and three sophomores, returned for the 1983 season. They had worked together under Coach Rob Buck and included senior All-American Jackie Backus. Two highly recruited sophomores, Paige Paulson and Heather Sawyer, were among the first women to receive full four-year athletic scholarships to WMU.

As one win followed another, university and community support for the Broncos began to grow. Early season crowds of less than 100 swelled to several thousand. A team that played several early season games in area high school gymnasiums now filled the bleachers at Read Fieldhouse.

Often seasons have turning points, but different players remember them differently, particularly after the passage of thirty years. For Paige Paulson, a late season match in which they swept Purdue on the road was critical. By then, the Broncos knew they were good. The victory against Purdue proved they could play against nationally-ranked powers.

Heather Sawyer recalled a match earlier in November at Miami of Ohio. After winning two easy games, the Broncos may have lost their focus, and the Miami team won the next two games and had the Broncos on the ropes in the deciding fifth game. She remembered that senior Amy Timmers, who was serving at the time, rallied the team and pushed them to a 16-14 victory that kept the unbeaten season alive.

Following the Purdue match, the team returned and closed out the season with four more victories. The crowd support that the Broncos enjoyed so impressed the NCAA that it moved the first round tournament match to Kalamazoo.

On Saturday, December 3, a huge crowd packed Read Fieldhouse to watch Western take on Nebraska. After dropping the first game by a score of 15-9, the Broncos reeled off three straight wins to defeat the Cornhuskers and advance to the Mideast Regionals. On the following Friday in West Lafayette, Indiana, the Broncos met Purdue for the second time in a month. This meeting was more challenging, as the Boilermakers stretched the match to five games, but again WMU prevailed.

The following day, WMU met UCLA in the Mideast Regional Finals. The young athletes’ season came to an end as the highly-favored California powerhouse easily defeated the Broncos in three games. Thirty years later, however, the memory of that amazing and magical season lingers on.