Nov. 20, 2009

 

By Justice B. Hill
Special to NCAA.com

 
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio –His team is here again, back in the NCAA Division III Volleyball Championships. Here to play for the title, to face longtime rival Washington University for the grand prize in women’s volleyball.

But coach Larry Bock will tell you that Juniata had no smooth road to the title game. Yes, his Eagles beat Wisconsin-Oshkosh Friday night in three sets (25-23, 25-18, 26-24), but nothing about their victory would suggest they didn’t face a stern test.

“Sets one and three were certainly the difference,” said Bock, whose team won NCAA titles in 2004 and 2006. “We had played Oshkosh before and we knew they just dig a gazillion balls.
 
“They are a really, really good defensive team.”

What the Titans weren’t, however, was a team seasoned at big events like this one. They were making their first trip to the Final Eight, and making it to the Final Four was a giant step for a program trying to get where Juniata and Washington (St. Louis) are: At the top of women’s volleyball.

Oshkosh gave every indication that they deserved to be there. For aside from the second set, they matched up well with Juniata (Huntingdon, Penn.).

The third set illustrated that equality best. The Titans fell behind 10-5, perhaps signaling that Juniata might roll through the game. But Oshkosh reeled off four points, two on setter Katelyn Vara’s assists, to get back into the set.

“They were just playing out of their minds,” Bock said. “I kinda figured they’d turn back into human beings at some point.”

Over the next points, neither team held a lead larger than two points. After the two teams tied at 19-19, the rest of the set was an exchange of points: two boxers trying to find the weakness in the other.

With the score 24-24, middle hitter Amanda Schmidt’s block put Juniata ahead, and the Eagles won the set and the match on Drew Barnhart’s kill that lined just inside the left corner.

The third set was as tough a set as had been played during the first six matches of the Division III tournament. It had ebbs and flows, and an estimated 440 fans in the Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center on the John Carroll University campus cheering wildly.

That final point was the next step for Juniata; it was the last step for Wisconsin-Oshkosh (39-3).

As coach Brian Schaefer dissected the loss, seniors Vara and Katie Beining sat next to him, Beining’s eyes welling with tears. Beining wiped one or two away. But it was understood what was behind those wet eyes: the heartbreak of seeing her career end.

“I can’t say enough about our four seniors,” Schaefer said. “They are very special people, and I appreciate all the hard work that they’ve done that last four years. It’s just tough to know you didn’t play your best and you go down.”

Bock saw no reason for Schaefer to be frustrated in his team’s performance. For Bock knows a quality program when he sees it, and he was quick to praise what the Titans had done, even in defeat.

They pushed Juniata (36-3) throughout the match – no easy task for a team with Juniata’s pedigree.

“We survived the big runs from Oshkosh,” Bock said. “That was the beginning, and then at the end, that one final push.”

And it was that final push that put the Eagles into the championship.