D-III Quarterfinals Roundup: A Titanic Effort
Nov. 19, 2009
By Justice B. Hill
Special to the NCAA
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio – Coach Lindsay Birch didn’t know what to make of the start Christopher Newport University got off to Thursday night in the quarterfinals of the NCAA Division III women’s volleyball tournament.
In the last of the four matches, the Captains, a team Birch said is notorious for its slow starts, sped to a 25-21 win in the first set. But Birch, whose squad had no seniors, couldn’t sustain its momentum. Instead, Wisconsin-Oshkosh, a favorite to win the title, dominated the second and third sets before hanging on to win the fourth set and match.
The Titans advanced to the semifinals with a 21-25, 25-14, 25-13 and 25-21 win.
“We played so well in the first set that we thought we were in for a good run,” Birch said. “We were ready to play; we fully expected to win. … They had postseason experience that we lacked, and that really started to grow in their favor as the match wore on.”
No doubt experience proved the difference, because when they needed it most, the Titans were able to turn to it to keep their title hopes alive, coach Brian Schaefer said.
He seemed relieved that the Titans did survive, but they caught more than they bargained for against the untested Captains (37-6).
“They took it to us,” Schaefer said. “I think their serving caught us off guard a little bit. They were going for it every single time. But then they kind of cooled off a little bit – got a little bit tight.”
Inexperience leads to that, particularly when so much was at risk. Win or go home, that’s what both teams faced.
The Titans are the team that stays, because somewhere between the first and second sets, they found their hitting, which proved overpowering. They raced to a 10-4 lead in the second set and never looked back.
In advancing to Friday’s semifinals, the Titans got superb play from middle blocker Jacque Ray, who had 17 kills and finished with a .375 hitting percentage. Setter Katelyn Vera, who chipped in with 38 assists and four kills, was a settling force with her deft passing.
“If we pass well, we have so many options in the front row now,” said Schaefer, whose team plays Juniata, which beat Trinity. “I think that was the difference. Katelyn did a great job of finding our hitters, and they led us.”
HOPE OVER TUFTS (25-17, 25-23, 29-31, 25-18): Outside hitter Cara Spieler didn’t have the look of somebody who had just lost. She sat in the postgame press conference, her face aglow, even though she had just seen the end to her volleyball season.
Not that Spieler had made peace with losing, but she had reason to be proud of herself and her Tufts teammates for pushing Hope College to the brink in their NCAA Division III quarterfinals.
In a tense four-set match, she and Tufts lost. They held strong until the final point, as their pulsating back-and-forth third set proved.
The two sides traded points during that set – one dazzling play after another -- in pushing the score past 25 points. Tufts eked ahead 30-29 on a ball that Hope hit off the antenna, and then won the set on the next point.
“We have this refuse to lose attitude,” Spieler said. “We realized at that point we had nothing to lose.”
It was win-or-go-home for the Jumbos, and they weren’t going home without giving all to winning. But after the third set, they couldn’t sustain the momentum from it, and Hope took over and advanced to the semifinals Friday, where the Flying Dutch play Washington University.
“I thought, at times, we were a little streaky,” Hope coach Becky Schmidt said. “I think it was a little bit of a matter of letting the pressure get to you.”
In the fourth set, the Flying Dutch shook off the nerves and put away Tufts behind the rock-solid play of setter Andrea Helminiak and outside hitter Sara DeWeerdt.
“We just needed to make Tufts a little bit more uncomfortable,” Schmidt said.
Both Helminiak and DeWeerdt did, though not alone. But they played leading roles. Helminiak had 47 assists and five kills, and DeWeerdt had 14 kills, second on the team to Jacie Fiedler’s 18.
None of them let the third set weigh on them, Helminiak said.
“We have a saying, ‘Don’t worry about the last point; it’s a new point,” she said. “But it was a little draining.”
JUNIATA OVER TRINITY (25-16, 27-25, 25-23): Kelsey Fuller raised her arms as teammates swarmed to her. Fuller had taken a pass from setter Steph Strauss and hammered it off a defender’s hands, the ball bouncing onto the gray area outside the court.
It was the final point in a three-set match that tested Juniata in ways coach Larry Bock and his players might not have expected. After all, his Eagles (35-3) had beaten Trinity three weeks earlier.
“That was a very different team than we saw a couple of weeks ago,” Bock said. “That’s a very good team.”
Indeed Trinity was – all things considered. While the Tigers played an unimpressive first set, compiling an attack percentage of .121, their performance improved markedly when coach Julie Jenkins focused her offense around middle hitters Aly Hazelwood, Ginger Haley and Meredith Erwin.
“Their middle hitters were eating us for lunch,” Bock said. “Their middle hitters are as tough as we’ve seen all year.”
In what was a display of offensive firepower, Bock countered. Having watched the Tigers (30-12) adjust their defense to combat his outside hitting, he had Strauss set up her teammates in positions that could exploit the middle of the court.
No player handled that task better than outside hitter Drew Barnhart, who finished the night with a .633 hitting percentage and a game-high 20 kills.
Jenkins praised Barnhart’s play, but she also bemoaned her team’s ability to block effectively and penetrate the defense when it needed to.