ST. LOUIS — After the biggest win of his coaching career, Wittenberg head coach Paco Labrador paused to reflect upon how much the 3-0 victory against Christopher Newport in the 2011 NCAA Division III National Championship match meant to all the players who helped build the Tiger program.
“We’ve had so many great players over the years at Wittenberg who have come up short of this goal,” Labrador said after becoming the first Wittenberg coach to win a women’s national title. “It was great to look up in the stands and see so many of them cheering this team on. They shared in this championship, just as they should.”
The Tigers raised the famed NCAA Walnut & Bronze trophy for the first time in volleyball and the fifth time in school history in any sport by winning in consecutive sets 25-21, 25-21, 28-26. It was the second year in a row that a team representing the Great Lakes Region had won a title at the Washington University Field House, and the first time that a team from the state of Ohio had won an NCAA volleyball title at any level of competition.
It didn’t come easily, however.
The Tigers played from behind in the early going, rallying from a 15-13 deficit in the opening set. The big run came with the score tied at 18-18 — a crafty kill by junior setter Hallie Donathan set things up and junior libero Christina Gilene served the Tigers into control at 23-18. The exclamation point was provided by senior outside hitter Kimmie Dyer on set point to give Wittenberg a 1-0 advantage.
That momentum carried into the second set as the Tigers won the first five points, all on Gilene’s serve. Christopher Newport could get no closer than two points the rest of the way as the Tigers, with six seniors in the starting lineup, repeatedly came up with clutch shots to stop CNU rallies. Right-side hitter Catherine Farny, one of those six seniors, capped things with authority on set point to extend the Tigers lead to 2-0.
That set the stage for a third set rally that Wittenberg fans will be talking about for a long time. The teams traded the lead throughout the set before Christopher Newport appeared to take control at 24-20. But the Tigers rallied, first pressuring the Captains into three errors and to take a timeout.
Buoyed by a frenzied crowd, the Tigers came out of the break on fire, ripping off three consecutive kills to move within one point of the title that had eluded them for so long. But the Captains wouldn’t go quietly, extending the match to 26-26 before two seniors, Dyer and right-side hitter Christine Simpson, ended things with back-to-back kills.
Dyer was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after collecting 12 kills and 11 digs for her third double-double performance in as many nights. Simpson joined her on the all-tournament team after turning in perhaps her finest match as a collegian with 13 kills, and zero errors on 23 attack attempts for a sizzling .565 attack percentage.
Donathan finished with 22 assists, while freshman setter Meghan Vodopich added 20 of her own. Defensively, the key as always was Gilene, who added a match-high 21 digs to her aforementioned serving exploits.
The Tigers were appearing in their first national title match after falling three times in the national quarterfinals and three times in the national semifinals since 2002. The championship is the first for a Wittenberg team since 1977, when the men’s basketball team raised the trophy.
“After all the hours of work, this is such a great reward,” Labrador said. “This team came together so well, and I couldn’t be happier for the players and all of our fans.”