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It's easy for people to say they live by a particular set of values. It can be much more difficult to fully commit to them, which is why it took Beth Wilmeth about a year to persuade her volleyball team to begin making "honor calls."
The coach at Roseville's Northwestern College stresses integrity, and she wanted her players to demonstrate their principles on the court. Her suggestion: When an Eagles blocker touches an opponent's shot that goes out of bounds -- and game officials don't see the touch -- the Eagles should self-report it, which would cost them the point. That proved to be a tough sell, even at a Christian college.
But Wilmeth also preaches persistence. She asked her players to think, talk and pray about it last fall, and a concept that once seemed incompatible with the competitive spirit has become symbol and sign for the Eagles' program. Last month, Northwestern's commitment to honor calls earned it the 2009-10 NCAA Student-Athlete Sportsmanship Award for female athletes.
The players -- and Wilmeth, too -- still grimace when they surrender a point. But an idea that initially bewildered opponents and officials has enabled the Eagles to make a unique imprint on their school and their sport, while deepening the spirituality that guides them.
"It was a hard thing to get used to," senior setter Leah Kostek said. "I'm so competitive that the first few times it happened on crucial points, I had to tell myself, 'This is a good thing! This is a good thing!'
"I was really frustrated, but deep down, I knew it was the right thing to do. I'm proud of my teammates, and I'm proud to be an Eagle."
Middle blocker Elissa Sandstrom has had to make several honor calls on herself, and her initial opposition has morphed into unexpected joy. "Now I love doing it," she said. "It still stinks giving up a point, but it feels right. Other teams have said, 'Thank you for being honest.' And if you want to be a person of integrity, you have to have it in all areas."
Wilmeth became intrigued with the honor-calls concept in 2008. After the NCAA Division III Eagles set a school record for victories with a 30-7 record -- and went 14-0 in the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference to win their second title in a row -- she wanted to set a new standard for achievement, one that wasn't centered on numbers.
One of the Eagles' opponents that season, Ohio's Cedarville University, made honor calls. Wilmeth decided to challenge her players to be a "legacy team," one that left a lasting impression for the athletes who would follow. She set five core principles to guide them -- tenacity, integrity, love, release from the pressure to win, and forming authentic relationships -- and floated the idea of honor calls as part of living those ideals.
Even after her players accepted it, it took others a while to do so. Before the first games of the 2009 season, Wilmeth told the officials what her team planned to do, then figured word would get around.
It didn't, and neither referees nor opponents could grasp the idea of a team willingly giving up a point. "In our first tournament, at Augsburg, the officials met and decided what we were doing wasn't fair," she said. "So they started ignoring our calls, and it was really funny to watch the team's reaction. They had finally decided to do it, and the ref wouldn't take it. It was so different that it surprised people at first."
UMAC officials determined there was no rule prohibiting honor calls. When they checked with the NCAA, they were told it was definitely OK -- and that NCAA representatives admired and encouraged it.
Honor calls have not yet cost Northwestern a match, but they did take 30 points away from the Eagles last season. In return, they have strengthened the players' dedication to the high standards their faith calls them to follow, which has had a ripple effect.
Other teams have begun asking about the concept. Some have simply emulated it, which might be the greatest honor of all.
"Last year, in a game against Wisconsin-Eau Claire, one of our girls made an honor call," Sandstrom said. "On the next point, one of their girls made one. I felt like that's how volleyball is supposed to be played. It was really nice."
Rachel Blount • email@example.com