Sixty four teams took to the courts to start the DII NCAA Women’s Volleyball National Championships at the beginning of December. This Thursday the final eight teams head to Tampa, Florida, to crown the newest queens of the court.
It’s an Elite 8 that sees only two No. 1 seeds advance from their regions. It’s an Elite 8 full of some surprises and some teams that many would consider the underdog. One of those teams is the Wayne State Wildcats.
The Wildcats entered the tournament as the seventh seed in the Central Region. It was no easy task escaping their bracket, but at the end of the day, they captured their first Regional Championship in the program’s history.
They first defeated No. 2 seeded Central Missouri 3-1 in the first round. Next up were long time Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference foes Southwest Minnesota State and Concordia - St. Paul. Not only were they the No. 3 and No. 1 seeded teams in the region, they were the No. 2 and No. 1 ranked teams in the nation.
The Wildcats prevailed, taking down SMSU 3-1 and the Concordia-St Paul 3-0 to lock up their first regional title.
“People talk about chemistry a little bit, but they don’t talk about it enough,” Wayne State head coach Scott Kneifl said. “This group truly has unbelievable team chemistry. It goes a really long way in pressure situations.
“We were put in some really tough spots. This last weekend, we came from behind against Southwest Minnesota State down 15-7 in the fourth set. I’m sitting there thinking that it’s going five, but our team just believes. They believe in each other and how we train and our philosophy here. That kind of chemistry doesn’t come around too often.”
Cats have arrived in Tampa! Let the fun begin! https://t.co/PiJtTd4qtt— WSCWildcatVolleyball (@WSCWildcatVB) December 8, 2015
The Wildcats have a core of four seniors that have been through it all together since day one. Courtney VanGroningen, Leisa McClintock, Katie Hughes and Elizabeth Gebhardt aren’t just senior starters, they are the team captains that bring invaluable leadership to the floor every night.
“It’s everything,” Kneifl said of his seniors. “It’s a group of four senior captains that have played every game since they have been at Wayne State. Their leadership has really shone through the last three weeks, but was phenomenal all season.”
While it may seem like Wayne State is facing some tough challenges, it is something the team is rather used to on a weekly basis. WSC hails from the NSIC, perhaps the best women’s volleyball conference in the nation where -- as Coach Kneifl says -- "it seems like we faced a ranked opponent every weekend." The final AVCA coaches poll saw seven teams from the conference ranked in the nation’s top 25.
“It’s the toughest conference in the country as far as volleyball goes,” Kneifl said. “There were so many really good teams that were left out of the NCAA tournament because of regionalization. It gets your team battle tested. And that’s what our team was, so there were no surprises when we went up against Concordia State. We knew what we had to do, we had to put three great games together.”
Heading into the NSIC tournament, Concordia-St. Paul and SMSU were near locks for the NCAA National Championships. That left a bevy of solid NSIC teams that deserved consideration battling for their chance to play in the postseason. When Wayne State exited the NSIC tournament earlier than expected, they sat and waited for their fate.
“It’s hard sitting there waiting to hear if your name is going to get called when you know that you have a team that is capable of doing what we just did,” Kneifl said. “Northern State has a great team and Augustana, Winona State, and Mankato … you’re talking about teams that are getting left out of the NCAA Tournament that just doesn’t seem right. So when we got that chance, it felt good and our kids have taken advantage of it.”
They weren’t going to let that chance slip away, and they have certainly made the most of their magical December run thus far.
“It was like we got off the defibrillator and they gave us one shock,” Kneifl said. “That first breath was one heck of a first breath and now we hope we have a little more left in the tank."
Next up is Carson-Newman, who are a bit of a feel-good story themselves capturing the Southeast Region as a fourth seed. The Wildcats are in unchartered territory, but it’s exactly where they want to be.
“Our seniors have raised the bar,” Kneifl said. “We’ve been ranked No. 1 in the country before, we’ve won conference championships, we’ve knocked off top five teams on numerous occasions. This is different. This takes our program to a new level. The expectations are going to be raised and it’s an exciting time here. We are in a town of 4,000 people and you can’t go anywhere without someone talking about Wayne State Volleyball and that’s a great thing.
“We’ve accomplished a couple of the goals we had set in the preseason, but there are still a couple more out there that we would really like to get.”
GVSU completes their three-peat
It was an accomplishment that was only achieved once before in the history of the DII Women’s Soccer National Championships. Now The Lakers can say it has happened twice.
The Grand Valley State Lakers rose victorious this past Sunday over Columbus State, and in doing so, captured their third straight National Championship. The 2-0 victory put GVSU in a club that was started by Franklin Pierce, who won four consecutive championships from 1994 to 1997.
It was a season that started on a low note and lit a fire that would never go out.
The Lakers lost their first game of the season 3-0 to Quincy University. That would start a run to the national title that would not see them lose again over the next 24 games, finishing their season 23-1-1. Their run was highlighted by an October that saw them go 8-0-0, outscoring their opponents 32-1 along the way.
"I can say that nothing means more to me than this moment with this group of girls. It's a different journey every year to come to the final four, and I wouldn't change it for the world, and I wouldn't change any girl," senior Katie Bounds said to GVSU Athletics.
A new No. 1 reigns supreme in Women’s Hoops
There is a new team atop the USA Today Coaches poll. They got there by beating the former No. 1 team in an exciting 71-70 shootout this past weekend.
Fort Hayes State came into the weekend ranked No. 5 in the nation ready to face the No. 1 Emporia State Hornets. They would leave victorious, taking down a No. 1 ranked team for the first time in the program’s history. The Tigers climbed to No. 1 in the nation and sit atop the MIAA at 8-0, 2-0.
This week also saw West Texas A&M jump two spots into the No 2 slot, while Emporia State fell to three. Drury jumped to spots to claim the No. 4 and rounding out the top 5 was last week's No. 2 team and the 2014 national title runner up California Baptist. The reigning champion California (PA) hang tight in the middle of the pack, improving to 7-1 and coming in at No. 13.