Nov. 21, 2009

Sidebar: Pang Poised At Libero

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By Justice B. Hill
Special to NCAA.com

 
UNIVERSITY HEIGHTS, Ohio – The contrast was stark: On one side of the court Saturday night, 10 women from Juniata, all in black and all seemingly drained of spirit, tried to will their teammates to keep up the fight.

Things didn’t look good.

Juniata (Huntingdon, Penn.) was looking at the wrong end of a 19-14 score. Already a down, 2-1 in sets, the Eagles were measuring theirs hopes of winning the NCAA Division III Volleyball Championship in points, not sets.

And down the way from them, 10 women on the Washington University sidelines, standing and clapping and exhorting their teammates to keep forging ahead – the goal was in sight. And they would reach that goal in the most gut-wrenching way for their opponent.  

With Game 4 at 24-21 in Washington’s favor, Juniata middle hitter Kristen Noetzel served the ball into the net, giving Washington University coach Rich Luenemann and his Bears the Division III title in four games: 18-25, 26-24, 25-17, 25-21, at the Tony DeCarlo Varsity Center at John Carroll University.  

“I think when you reflect back, we aren’t the most athletic team, but we certainly play with the most amount of heart,” said Luenemann, having earned his third national title and the school’s 10th.  “There’s no doubt of that.”

He was right. His team did display heart, and if his players hadn’t, they surely would have been standing on the sidelines with defeated looks on their faces. In beating Juniata, their hearts were tested.

The two teams were hardly strangers. Luenemann and Juniata coach Larry Bock had met each other for years in the high-paced world of women’s volleyball. They played earlier this season.

During that match Sept. 18, the two teams set an NCAA record, playing a white-hot set that ebbed and flowed until the Bears pulled out the heart-stopper, 41-39.

Luenemann, whose team won that match, too, had more at stake in this game than the one earlier in the year. Yes, Juniata was ranked No. 1 then, a point of pride for any program. But a win over a No. 1 team in September doesn’t amount to much with most of the season left to play.

Just ask Luenemann or Bock when it would matter, and they’d both tell you now, not back then.

For one of the coaches would return to his campus with the title of No. 1 if his team recorded the last point of this season. And that team would be Luenemann’s.

His team, however, lost the first set in the championship game.

“We weren’t executing,” he said.

In the second set, the teams looked as if they might duplicate the 41-39 game from Sept. 18.

“Dear God, no!” said Luenemann when asked if that thought had crept into his mind.

He didn’t want to repeat that sort of history – not here, not with a national championship as the prize. He wouldn’t have to repeat it, because middle hitter Lauren Budde’s kill on a pass from setter Marilee Fisher put the game away 26-24.

That set seemed to sap Juniata of the momentum it had built in the first set, and the Bears went on a roll. While they never overpowered Juniata, they played with a steadier hand from the second set on.

“They were very good,” Bock said of Washington (St. Louis). “They won the pass-serve game. They seemed to get themselves in system a little bit better than we did.”

That’s about how Luenemann saw it, too. He refused to single out any player for special praise, because he called this championship a team victory in every sense.

“Everybody played an integral part – whether they played a minute or not at all,” he said. “They played with great heart.”