Dec. 6, 2009

Sidebar: For Bears, Height Doesn't Equal Might


By Judd Spicer
Special to

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting steak. UCLA's seven straight NCCA men's basketball titles. Johnny Unitas' 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass. Cal Ripken's 2,632 straight games played.

The run for Concordia women's volleyball may not yet be compared with these legendary steaks, but in the annals of D-II Women's Volleyball history, it's unrivaled.

Before a roaring, sellout crowd of nearly 1,900 at the Gangelhoff Center on Saturday night, host Concordia continued one of the most inspired runs in all of NCAA sports, defeating West Texas A&M for its 74th consecutive victory and third straight D-II women's volleyball championship. The Golden Bears won in straight sets 25-18, 25-18, 25-16.

Along with the hardware, Concordia captured history, becoming the first women's volleyball team in Divisions I or II to win three consecutive national titles. The NCAA began sponsoring the sport in 1981.

Concordia finished the '09 campaign with a 37-0 record, advancing to the title game via a quarterfinal win over Indianapolis University and a semifinal victory over Cal State San Bernardino in a rematch of last year's title game. The last D-II women's champion to finish a season undefeated was Hawaii Pacific, which went 28-0 in 2000.

West Texas concluded its runner-up season at 39-4. The championship berth marked the Lady Buffs' third trip to the Elite Eight in the last four years and their first title game since 1997, when they won the third title in program history. Previous D-II championships had come in their two previous title-game appearances, in 1990 and 1991. A&M defeated California (Pa.) in the quarterfinals before downing Flagler College in the semis.

In defeat, West Texas was led by first-team All-American Laura Prinsen's eight kills, while setter Katie Rickwartz added 19 assists. Junior outside hitter Lauren Thedford chipped in with six kills, four assists and a team-leading 13 digs. On the year, A&M had averaged the nation's best kills-per-set average of  14.38 but managed only 26 kills in Saturday night's three sets (8.67 average).

"Defensively, I think we were pretty much even, and there were a lot of long rallies," said West Texas coach Jason Skoch, who had made it to the Final Four last year with Truman State. "I told the team that Concordia just made fewer errors. We made our errors at the wrong time. Concordia deserves it, and their consistency factor is something to shoot for."

Sophomore outside hitter Ellie Duffy got the Golden Bears started early with four kills in the first set. On the season, Duffy had averaged 1.82 kills per set. Her ebullience proved contagious, as freshman middle hitter Cassie Haag followed up her own four-ill first set with five more in the second. For the match, Haag led the Golden Bears with 13 kills. All-American libero Mary Slinger complemented with an active 20 digs, while two-time NCAA D-II Player of the Year Maggie McNamara added 38 more assists to her all time Division II-leading total.

With Concordia up 20-10 in the third and the title nearing, chants of "Three-Peat!" rose through the stands. With the final point, fans joined players in a jubilant midcourt celebration.

"Coach Skoch did a phenomenal job in taking his team to the title game in his first year with the program," Concordia coach Brady Starkey said after the win. "It was a fun battle, and frustrating for us, offensively, just to watch how good A&M plays defense. I was just really pleased at how hard we fought. I thought our own defense was great. They did a lot of things to make it so that we weren't able to be as offensive as we normally are. But I'm just really proud about how we scrapped on defense.

"Every single night we played, regardless of who we were playing, these girls played hard. Just like they would do in practice every day. Hats off to the players. They just love to play and compete every time they step out on the court. It's fun to watch and really fun to coach."

After ending her senior season with an undefeated mark, Slinger beamed: "It's perfect."

Perfect, indeed.