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Unbeaten UNLV volleyball team’s success led by coach

The newly minted Mountain West Player of the Year almost never was. She was so frustrated, so disgruntled, so discouraged during her freshman volleyball season of 2017-18 that she considered leaving the team, quitting the sport she’d always loved.

At least temporarily.

“It sucked,” said outside hitter Mariena Hayden, now a senior, bluntly recalling a year in which the Rebels finished 8-23. The only year in her career in which she lost more than she won.

“Everybody was kicking our butts night in and night out. It was that bad. It kind of made me rethink everything.”

Until the Rebels hired Dawn Sullivan.

With Hayden on the court and Sullivan on the sideline, the Rebels in three years have blossomed into the best team in the Mountain West — complete with an unbeaten record, the conference championship and the program’s third NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2016.

Hayden was awarded player of the year honors on Monday, the same day Sullivan was honored as the conference’s Coach of the Year. The two will lead the Rebels on Wednesday against Illinois State in the first round of tournament play in Omaha, Nebraska.

A victory would pit UNLV against No. 2 Kentucky and further legitimatize the program’s turnaround. But Hayden and Sullivan are seeking something else in addition to victory.

Sustainability.

“We’re on track,” said Sullivan, who is completing her third year as the program’s head coach. “Now we want to jump into that top 25. We’re definitely taking the steps to get there.”

The dynamic duo

Hayden arrived in Las Vegas by way of Belle Plaine, Minnesota, a tiny town of 6,000 some 45 miles southwest of the Minneapolis metropolitan area. She also played basketball and participated in track and field. But it was volleyball that would propel her to college and solidify her superstardom in her hometown.

Her uncle and aunt live in Las Vegas and she attended a volleyball camp at UNLV during the summer before her freshman year in high school, impressing former head coach Cindy Frederick so much that she earned a scholarship offer on the second day.

She committed to the Rebels during her sophomore year of 2014-15 and said she never seriously considered playing anywhere else.

“She never looked back,” said Hayden’s mother, Amy. “She always wanted to go back to UNLV.”

Hayden powered her high school team to its first state championship in 2015 despite tearing an ACL during the final point of the title match. She rehabilitated the injury and returned for her senior season, earning all-state honors before departing for UNLV.

She arrived in Las Vegas in 2017, hoping to help the Rebels build on a 2016 season in which they reached the NCAA Tournament. But the program lacked the kind of structure that Hayden was accustomed to and she contemplated quitting amid all the losing.

“I don’t think my priorities were in the right place,” Hayden said. “It was a mess.”

UNLV did not renew Frederick’s contract after the 2017 season and opted to hire Sullivan, an overachieving former All-American hitter who’d spent 16 seasons as an assistant at Illinois State and Iowa State. She’d eagerly awaited her first head coaching opportunity and won over the team on her first day by running the stairs at the Thomas & Mack Center with the players.

“She put in this mindset that we’re going to work and we’re going to win, and if you don’t want to work, then get out, basically,” Hayden said. “We knew it wasn’t going to come in one year, and we really had to buy in.”

Sullivan sought to build the program by focusing on fundamentals like serving, digging, passing and setting. The drills were monotonous but effective in helping the Rebels refine their raw talent. She also emphasizes mental toughness and often bookends practices with exercises in mindfulness like journaling.

The Rebels’ trust in Sullivan has resulted in three consecutive winning seasons, with an improved Mountain West record every year — including a 12-0 mark this season and the longest winning streak in program history.

“It just continued to build,” said Sullivan, who starred at Kansas State from 1996 to 1999 and began coaching in 2002. “I would see so much growth. … Every month. It’s finally clicking for them.”

Under Sullivan, Hayden has fulfilled her potential as one of the best players in the country. She led the NCAA this year in aces per set (0.95) while finishing third in total aces (40) and seventh in points per set (5.38).

Her teammates follow her lead. The Rebels led the conference in hitting percentage (.306), assists per set (12.96), kills per set (14.31), aces per set (2.05) and digs per set (14.88).

The .306 hitting percentage and 2.05 aces per set rank sixth nationally.

“Our culture is just different from any other,” said freshman setter Arien Fafard, a Palo Verde graduate. “On the court, we just embrace each other so much that it’s just a different feeling than I’ve felt anywhere else.”

A far cry from the culture Hayden experienced during her freshman season.

Hayden has already pledged to return for one final season this fall, and Sullivan is optimistic that the program can continue to grow. But first things first, because the NCAA Tournament begins Wednesday.

“I want this (program) to be known as the new power team in the Mountain West,” Hayden said. “Not only that, but the most hard-working and relentless team that people have played.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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