If there was any question whether UC Merced was ready to take its sports teams to a higher competitive level, the women's volleyball club team has proved it this year.
When senior Kayla Taylor first joined the team as a freshman, in the club's second year, the Bobcats struggled to win even a single game of any of their matches. In this season's opening game, though, UC Merced beat UC Davis' club team in convincing fashion.
"From then on, we realized what a serious team we'd turned out to be," said Taylor, now the club's president. "It was a little shocking to us. It used to be a struggle to win any games, and now we're taking some matches easily."
It was an encouraging sign of things to come. Women's volleyball is one of four sports scheduled to begin play in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in 2011-12, along with men's basketball and men's and women's cross country.
UC Merced's acceptance into the NAIA is expected to be approved during the NAIA national convention in mid-April.
"We are all very excited to join the NAIA and be a part of a competitive league," said junior Brigitte Mayes, a political science major. "It is a big step for the women's volleyball program, and we're ready for the challenge."
Taylor, a psychology major with career goals that include the FBI, played volleyball at Atwater High School but was injured during her junior year. Enrolling at UC Merced offered her a chance to continue playing the sport and to help build a program from the ground level to where it is today.
This season, the Bobcats won eight league matches, advanced to the Northern California Collegiate Volleyball League championships for the first time and will compete at the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation championships in Houston in April. And Krista Venecia, director of UC Merced's Science and Math Initiative and the volleyball team's head coach, was named the league's Coach of the Year.
"The team has totally changed," Taylor said. "It's definitely grown and matured in a lot of different ways. We're a lot more serious in a lot of ways and a lot more competitive."