On Monday morning, two days after a historic win over American International in the regional final, Daemen women’s volleyball coach Stephanie Albano delivered a clear message to her players.

“We belong,” Albano told her team.

Sure, the Wildcats are thrilled to be moving on to the NCAA Division II Elite Eight for the first time. At 2:30 p.m. Thursday in Tampa, No. 7 seed Daemen will take on second-seeded Western Washington in the second of four national quarterfinals matches.

They’re an underdog, yes. Daemen College? On the NCAA website after the matchups were announced in the selection show last Sunday, they even spelled it wrong. They had it as “Daemon.”

But don’t get the impression Albano and little Daemen are simply happy to be there in Tampa for the national tournament. They believe they can win the whole thing.

And why wouldn’t they be confident? The Wildcats (25-7) have won 12 straight matches, a couple in dramatic fashion. In the ECC final, they were down, two matches to one, against Bridgeport, but rallied to win the conference title and an automatic NCAA bid.

Daemen coach Stephanie Albano, a former New York State girls volleyball player of the year at Lancaster, has reached 100 wins with the Wildcats. (Courtesy of Geoff Schneider)

The same thing happened in the first NCAA game against Bentley in Springfield, Mass. Daemen was one set from elimination, then captured the final two sets to move on in the regionals. They beat Stonehill, 3-1, in the regional semifinals (in Albano’s 100th win as head coach) and upset host and No. 1 seed American International, 3-1, in the final.

That was especially exciting, coming against an AIC team that had ended Daemen’s season in the 2016 East Region final and again two years later in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

“I knew this team was special,” said Albano, who has guided the Wildcats to three NCAA berths in six years as head coach. “We constantly talked about owning yourself, being sure you’re a good leader of yourself and a teammate, making it really player-driven.

“They did that all year,” she said. “At AIC, we got back to being underdogs, because this was on their home court, and we played so well! Like lights-out.  Our team handled that moment amazingly. It was the best we played all year. It was awesome.”

Albano was pleased to get the seventh seed. She said teams from the lightly regarded ECC often get the No. 8. Western Washington, which is located in the coastal city of Bellingham near the Canadian border, breezed through the West bracket. The Vikings have won 19 straight and haven’t been taken to a fifth set since early October.

“I think they’re very comparable to Gannon,” Albano said. “We lost in four to Gannon (the No. 5 seed in the Elite Eight). We came out on fire the first set. We can hang and we can compete. They’re going to be on a huge travel bender. That helps us. I told the team, ‘If we’re tired, just imagine them.’ We belong there.”

Daemen celebrates with their regional champion trophy. (Courtesy of Bob Blanchard)

Albano envisioned this sort of success when she took over as Daemen head coach in May of 2016, roughly three years after the NCAA approved the college’s membership in Division II, making it at the time the only D-II program in the Greater Buffalo region.

The former Stephanie Jansma had always been a winner and part of an avid volleyball family. Her parents, Mike and Pam Jansma, officiate the sport locally. Her younger brother, Derek, was all-Western New York at Lancaster and went on to play at Harvard.

Stephanie led Lancaster High to an unbeaten season and a state public Class AA title as a senior in 2004. She was also named New York State girls volleyball player of the year. She went on to star at North Carolina, where she led the Tar Heels to two ACC championships.

Albano was an assistant at Canisius for a year after leaving Chapel Hill. She spent two years as associate head coach at Medaille, which won its first conference tournament and Division III tourney bid. She spent a year as an assistant at UB before moving on to Daemen as associate head coach in 2015.

She was pregnant with her first child, daughter Mackenzie, at the time. Her husband, Rick, is the boys’ volleyball coach at Orchard Park High, which went 13-0 in last year’s non-traditional spring season, winning the sectionals and earning Rick coach of the year.

“We have two coaches of the year in our house,” she joked. “But I give him a hard time, because I tell him I’m a three-time coach of the year. It’s a lot of volleyball. Our fall sometimes is really crazy, because he’s in season and I’m in season. So, there’s a lot of … managing.”

There was a lot to manage in 2015, when she was co-head coach at Daemen with Bob Maxwell. The plan was for her to share the duties for a year while pregnant with Mackenzie — who was born in mid-September of 2015 — then take over in 2016.

In 2016, her first season as head coach, the Wildcats went 25-8, won the ECC regular-season title and got an at-large NCAA bid.

“I like winning,” she said. “I like putting good products on the floor, and teaching the game and developing young women, to see how far they go not just on the court but off. For me, It was ‘I think we can do something here.’ A lot of hard work, a lot of questioning whether I could do it with my young family and my kids and everything else, and we made it happen.”

They fell back in 2017, then won the ECC title again in 2018 and got back to the NCAAs. They went 16-12 in 2019 and 3-3 in the Covid-shortened spring season a year ago. Albano had high hopes for that squad, but in some ways the pandemic helped them.

“In a way it did,” Albano said. “We had more practice. I’d never played volleyball in the spring, and I love it. In the fall, we get our freshmen and it’s ‘go, go, go.’ We had a whole spring to develop the freshmen and take it a little bit slower. That definitely helped in terms of development.”

Caitlyn Meyer, right, a St. Mary’s of Lancaster star who began her collegiate career at D-I James Madison, celebrates with Allison Post. (Courtesy of Bob Blanchard)

It also helped with the pandemic granting all college athletes an additional year of eligibility. Allison Post, a Californian who was injured last season, returned for a fifth year as a “super senior.” So did Caitlyn Meyer, a Clarence native and St. Mary’s of Lancaster grad who had played four years of Division I volleyball at James Madison and decided to come home for the extra year.

“My whole family lives in Buffalo,” said Meyer, a right-side hitter who was all-Colonial Athletic Association in her last year at James Madison. “Having a shortened senior year at JMU, and having been injured for most of the year before that, I just felt like I wasn’t ready to be done.

“I thought, ’I’m going to try to find somewhere close to home so I can be near my family, give them a chance to come watch me for once and also just have fun playing for one last year.”

Albano, who had recruited Meyer out of high school, was thrilled to get her for one year. And boy, did she have fun. There were tense moments, too. In the NCAA opener, they were one set from going home when Albano decided it might be time to put Post, her super senior, out for the fourth set. She hadn’t played in six weeks.

“She’s the fire, the heart and soul of the team,” Albano said. “I looked at our trainer and said, ‘She hasn’t hit front row, even in practice. Can she go? She said, Yup.’ She went in at the end of the third set and was lights out. She didn’t have one hitting error.”

Albano said Post lifted the team. She said the team settled in at that point and rode the momentum, all the way to the Elite Eight.

“Oh yes,” said Meyer, the ECC player of the year and honorable mention all-American. “During that game, it was like we’re going to have to play our best every single match from this point on. You can’t have an off set. That really sparked it, when we were down and Allison got put in.

“I think Steph knows her players,” Meyer added. “She knows what she needs, when. Putting Allison in the game really sparked us in that fourth set. She came in with so much energy and Steph knew she was going to bring that.”

Albano credits the team culture of the program, the bond that exists among players who don’t want to let each other down. It struck her that the AIC players didn’t come together after losing points. Her women do. She believes it makes a difference.

“(AIC) have great individual players. We knew we were the better team,” she said, accentuating the word team. “Our team is so connected and committed to each other. I haven’t been part of a group that’s been this on-board with each other. That’s really what has fueled us this far.”

Doing it in her hometown makes it all the sweeter, as it does for Meyer and the other locals who are vital to Daemen’s success: Sam Logan of Eden; Olivia Alessi from East Aurora; and Jasmine Brundage from St. Mary’s.

Albano has a core of local players from Western New York’s strong volleyball community. She has also expanded her recruiting base beyond the state. Daemen has players from Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

“That was kind of my philosophy coming in,” Albano said. “I knew I could go a little more Midwest and get some players other schools are going to overlook. There’s good volleyball in the Midwest. In the addition, we have some local kids that have really helped round out our team.”

Albano could probably go to some bigger conference, but there’s something special about coaching the sport you love in the place you grew up and being part of a program that’s achieved new heights.

“It’s really incredible,” she said. “I went away to college and came back here. This is my home. I couldn’t do this anywhere else, because I have young kids and my family is my support system. My aunt came over this morning to put Mackenzie on the bus. My son (Hudson) is back there in the office. They’re 6 and 4.”

It would be truly incredible if the Wildcats continue to play at a high level over three days and win a national title. The thing is, they wouldn’t be all that surprised if they did it.

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Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.