Dec. 4, 2010

By Gary Brown

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Concordia-St. Paul won its fourth consecutive Division II Women's Volleyball Championship Saturday night, beating Tampa, 25-23, 23-25, 26-24, 25-10.

It was the third time the two teams had met this year. Concordia beat the Spartans at Tampa's season-opening tournament, but Tampa returned the favor later in September with a 3-2 victory. The rubber match in Louisville was the thriller everyone expected.

"That match could have gone either way," said Concordia head coach Brady Starkey, who has been at the Golden Bears helm since 2003. "We got some breaks at some big times and the match swayed our way."

Concordia rallied to take the first set after trailing, 22-18. Kayla Koenecke and Cassie Haag scored back-to-back kills to pull the Golden Bears to within two, and then two attack errors from Tampa tied the set. Another ball-handling error from the Spartans gave Concordia the lead, and Haag and Koenecke finished it off with kills. Appearing to be affected by letting the first set slip away, Tampa fell behind early in the second. But the Spartans rallied to tie the set at 11 on a kill by Jessica Yingling. The teams stayed within a point of each other until Tampa stretched its advantage to 22-20. But two Haag kills tied the set at 22.

With the Spartans facing a similar make-or-break situation as they had in the first set, they caught a break with two Concordia attack errors. Haag planted another kill to bring the Golden Bears to within one, but Tampa's Kaleigh Cunningham blasted a kill to tie the match.

Holding true to form, Tampa led 22-20 again in the third set, but as was the case in the first set, the Spartans could not stave off the Golden Bears' comeback. Haag tied it at 23, and after a Danielle Selkridge kill for Tampa, Haag struck again to tie the set at 24. A third kill from Haag put Concordia on the brink, and a Tampa attack error sealed the Spartans' fate.

The score never got to 22-20 in the fourth set. Concordia rolled to a 9-2 lead and then stretched it to 13-5. After a Tampa timeout, things got worse for the Spartans. A block made it 15-5. Selkridge scored twice and then blocked a Concordia kill attempt to pull Tampa to within 15-8. But the Golden Bears went on a 10-2 run to close out the match, punctuated by four straight kills from Emily Palkert.

"Game 4 was not indicative of the match," said Tampa coach Chris Catanach. "We're not even going to remember Game 4. I'm really proud of our kids. I thought we were right there."

Starkey praised his middle hitters, Cassie Haag and Emily Palkert, who combined for 42 kills. Haag's 22 kills tied a career high.

"During the course of the match we can feel the flow of the game - we have a mismatch here, so let's take advantage of that mismatch," Starkey said. "Tonight, we felt like we had a mismatch in the middle and obviously we went there often. Amanda (Konetchky, setter) did a good job of getting them the ball."

Palkert, meanwhile, finished her collegiate career never having lost a title. "I don't think anyone goes out expecting to do that in their career," she said. "It's amazing not only to have a season like this in athletics but also to make best friends like I have and to get close to girls like this and have great coaches like this."

The championship was part of the Division II National Championships Festival, which also included championships in men's and women's cross country, men's and women's soccer, and field hockey. Tampa won the volleyball crown the last time Division II held a fall-sports version of the Festival in 2006, but Concordia has won ever since. The four consecutive titles is a Division II record; no other team has won more than two in a row.

The Golden Bears closed the season at 32-4 and on a 22-match winning streak. They've also won 24 straight NCAA tournament matches. Concordia is familiar with streaks, having won 75 straight matches from August 2008 to earlier this season when Grand Valley State gave the Golden Bears their first blemish of the campaign. Tampa closed its season with a 31-4 mark.