Nov. 19, 2009

D-III Quarterfinal Roundup
D-III Quarterfinals Sidebar

By Justice B. Hill
Special to
Coach Rich Luenemann arrived here for the NCAA Division III women’s volleyball championship hoping his team could bring Washington University its 10th title.

But if Luenemann had any illusions that winning No. 10 would be easy, he was flat-out wrong.

For any such thoughts were dispelled quickly under the pressure cooker of what turned into a 25-16, 23-25, 25-21 and 24-14 victory Thursday over Colorado College.

The victory in the quarterfinals assured Luenemann’s team a spot in Friday’s semifinals of this eight-team tournament.

His road to Friday, however, wasn’t as seamless as Luenemann might have liked.

“When you progress to this level of the tournament, there are elite teams,” he said. “You have to bring your ‘A’ game – all the time.”

That fact became clear after the first game, which the Bears dominated behind the deft setting of freshman Marilee Fisher. She assisted on 13 points and recorded three kills.

The Bears sealed that set on a mishit. One set isn’t a match, and coach Rick Swan’s Tigers proved far more resilient in the second. They knew that defeat was almost assured if they lost it.

Showing the fortitude that had taken his program where it had never been before, the Tigers won the set on outside hitter Sarah Schmoker’s kill, one of the 10 kills that Schmoker had for the match.

The momentum the Tigers took from winning that set carried over into the third set, where they bolted to a 7-1 lead.

“We let our concentration wane there,” Washington University’s Luenemann said. “Certainly, their right side gave us a lot of problems.”

Those problems led to an offense that didn’t run as smoothly as Luenemann had seen in the first set. Not that his Bears had dug too big a hole for themselves; that wasn’t so. It was more a case of their untidy play and an aggressive Colorado attack.

“There was a moment where we all realized that we needed to regain our focus and get back into our game,” Fisher said. “But nobody freaked out and thought this was it.”

Their calm helped, because Colorado College couldn’t sustain its play, thanks in no small part to Luenemann’s decision to change his blocking schemes.

“The momentum turned,” Swan said.

Suddenly, Colorado College started to make a fistful of mistakes down the stretch, allowing the Bears to take a 24-20 lead.

A service error forestalled the obvious, and when Washington outside hitter Kristen Thomas guided a laser into the right-hand corner, a shot that Colorado defensive specialist Hannah Varnell thought was headed out of bounds, the set belonged to the Bears.

With that shot went any real hopes for Colorado to win the match. It fell behind early in the fourth set, and halfway through it, Washington was sitting on a 13-7 lead.

All hope the Tigers clung to might have been lost as they watched middle hitter Marya Kaminski roll a shot off the top of the net and onto an open spot on their  side of the floor. That point gave Washington a 23-12 lead, and one point later, it closed out its win when Colorado had four hits on a shot.

The match was over for the Bears, so was their season – a bittersweet ending to what had been a special season for Swan’s 35-5 team.

“I told them, ‘Hey, we had a great season,’ ” Swan said afterward. “At the beginning of the year, I told them let’s make history, and they did that as a squad. I told them to keep their heads up, and I’m really proud of them.”

He had plenty of reasons for that sentiment, for the Tigers did as much as they could to stop Luenemann’s quest for his school’s 10th national title.

But the Tigers couldn’t control the ball consistently or set it effectively, both of which are the essence of playing winning volleyball, Luenemann said.

The Bears did, which is why his volleyball team will be playing in the semifinals against the Tufts-Hope winner Friday instead of heading back to St. Louis.