ASTON, Pa. — It was not easy, but No. 4 Eastern earned a spot in St. Louis with a marathon four-set win against Juniata in the Mid-Atlantic Regional final. Eastern fought off seven consecutive set points to claim victory in the decisive fourth set 28-26.
If it were not for the comeback from 24-17 in the fourth, everyone who saw the match would have been talking about the third set. The two teams battled for nearly an hour with neither team opening up any daylight. Eastern held the only three point lead of the set at 9-6, and the two teams extended the set with side-out after side-out until the Eagles scored three consecutive points to close the set at 36-34. Courtney Reinhold, who had 10 of her match-high 26 kills in the third set, recorded kills on two of the final three points.
Eastern was the first to 24 on a kill from Lauren Sproles, but the Juniata Eagles leveled the score on a kill from Amanda Schmidt. Schmidt finished the match with 21 kills to lead Juniata.
Juniata then scored a point on serve when Maria Horning’s tip missed the line by inches. Kearby Benak found a corner to side out, but the Eagles were not able to score a point on serve and flip the pressure of the game until a big solo block from Katrina Pisch gave Eastern a 29-28 lead.
Eastern remained in control as the two teams sided out with great efficiency until Juniata scored on serve to grab a 34-33 lead. Reinhold delivered a kill for a side-out and then Rachel Wenger put away an overpass on a Kearby Benak serve. Reinhold finished the set with a kill of an overpass as well.
Juniata grabbed control of the first set on nine consecutive points on Rachelle Wiegand’s serve. The 16-6 lead was too big for Eastern to overcome and the visiting Juniata Eagles took the opener 25-18.
Eastern jumped to a lead early the second set and held on for a 25-18 win. Reinhold, who recorded only 3 kills in the first set, put away eight balls to pace the home team in the second set.
The fourth set started out much as the third one ended with both teams scoring side-outs with good consistency. Eastern built a 16-13 lead before Juniata scored 11 of the next 12 points to hold a 24-17 lead. A Juniata hitting error gave Nikki Kummerer the serve with Eastern trailing 24-18.
Kummerer’s first serve put Juniata under pressure and resulted in a Pisch kill. A combination of hitting errors and Katrina Pisch kills brought Eastern back to 24-24. Schmidt recorded what would turn out to be the final kill of her career to earn the side out for Juniata. Pisch put away her fifth kill of the decisive set to earn the side-out, but the No. 8 Eagles did not go quietly as Kelsey Fuller earned another side-out.
Kearby Benak earned the side-out with a well-disguised cross-court tip to put the Eagles into their starting rotation. Reinhold put away a kill for the 27-26 lead, and Maria Horning ended the match with an ace.
When asked if there was ever a point where she would give up on a set and move on to the next, Horning insisted that that could not happen.
“I think our team has proved,” Horning said, “especially in this NCAA tournament that there is never a point a set when we are out of it.”
The win is the first in program history against Juniata. The perennial power had been the end of the road for each of the previous Eastern teams to reach a Regional Final.
In the midst of the match, Reinhold became the second Eastern player to record 1,500 digs in a career and into first place in front of Emma Klein. Junior libero Kelly Groff became the first Eastern player to surpass the 550 dig mark in a career.
Going into the night, no-one would have tabbed the 35-2 Eagles as the favorites to reach her ultimate goal, but No. 1 Calvin, No. 2 Emory, and No. 3 Washington U. all lost to leave Eastern as the highest remaining seed in the tournament.