BY MATT PARRINO
The Tonawanda News
Tonawanda News — When Joanna Fretthold finished her high school volleyball career at North Tonawanda, she had no idea what her next step would be. She loved volleyball but waited too long to look into college options and therefore was left with very few when she graduated.
Her club volleyball coach Mark Parisi suggested Daemen College, where he coached and felt that Fretthold's talents could be better utilized. So she decided to be a Wildcat and Parisi moved her from middle hitter to the outside where he felt she could be more dynamic.
Four years later, Fretthold looks back on her decision to go to Daemen as the best one she ever made, and the postion change allowed her to blossom into the volleyball star her coach always envisioned.
Fretthold led Daemen to the program's first ever national championship on Nov. 4 and earned tournament MVP honors in the process. She finished the season with team bests in kills (323 and 2.78 per set) and serving aces (34), and her 387 digs were good for third on the squad.
Daemen is in the process of transitioning to Division 2 for all of its sports and in the meantime is competing in the USCAA. The Wildcats failed to qualify for nationals last season, falling in the NAIA conference tournament — but Fretthold said that disappointment helped the team this season realize how rare an opportunity it had with a majority of starters returning.
"It was so disappointing at the end of last season even though we played really well — it was a let down. This year was a huge redeemer, being able to come back and not only make nationals but win it. We knew what a good team we had," Fretthold said. "I went into nationals thinking as long as we play our absolute best and give it everything we have, and me personally just put it all out there, then I would be happy with the weekend."
The Wildcats dropped only one set on their way to the championship and Fretthold said her team was one of the more intense and battle-tested squads in the tournament. Daemen dropped the set in the first game of the championship match against Florida College, the three-time defending USCAA champions equipped with talented and aggressive outside hitters.
Fretthold said Daemen made adjustments after the first-set blunder and began to attack the middle of the Florida defense. It worked and the Wildcats won the next three sets (25-22, 25-23, 25-19) en route to the win.
Wildcats junior Kaley Vazquez (a former Kenmore West Blue Devil) said that one of the most impressive parts of the Wildcats' championship run was the way the team came together. She said the team's chemistry and level of communication stems directly from Fretthold's leadership.
"She is a great leader and she's been a captain since I've been here," Vazquez said. "It's going to be really hard next year for our coach to fill her shoes because she does so much on and off the court for our team. She's really passionate about volleyball, she's hard-working and always wants to win."
Daemen assistant coach Carolyn Bell was forced to miss parts of the season because of a pregnancy, so Fretthold became sort of like the team's "second coach," according to Vazquez. She made sure players were doing the right things, arriving on time for practice and that the net was always set up for practice.
Fretthold's impact on the court will also be missed.
"She's been my outside since I was a freshman," Vazquez said. "She gets probably about 75 percent of the balls and she's on the court the whole game. Her presence on the court will be hard to replace."
With collegiate sports now in her rearview mirror, Fretthold again is faced with the question of what is next. She joked with her parents and friends that she has no idea what she is going to do now that volleyball is over. But she's been here before.
"I've been playing competitive sports for as long as I can remember and it'll be very weird for me to not play again. I'm having some trouble with it, obviously, like most athletes do," Fretthold said. "Coming to Daemen is the best decision I ever made and for that part of my life to be over is a huge disappointment.
"But at the same time, how many seniors can say that their last year they won the national championship and were named all-tournament MVP? I keep thinking about that. I gave it my best and it all paid off."
Contact Sports Editor Matt Parrino at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find Tonawanda News sports on Twitter @tonanewssports.