PENSACOLA, FL. — Two days of exhilarating volleyball are in the books from UWF Field House. Eight teams entered with title dreams and only Concordia-St. Paul and Florida Southern are left standing.
Historically speaking, the two teams couldn't be any different. Florida Southern is playing for its first national championship in program history and this is the first time it's ever advanced past the semifinals. Concordia-St. Paul has come to define DII volleyball this decade. The Golden Bears have won eight of the last 10 national titles.
The Mocs have had quite the ride. They enter the title game 30-6, defeating West Florida for the South Region championship and a ticket to Pensacola. It was the first time the Mocs made it to the semifinals since 1991. That season, Jill Stephens was a bright-eyed freshman on Florida Southern eager to continue the streak her team had. Twenty-six years later, Stephens is the head coach that finally got the Mocs over that hump.
“It was a really long time ago," Stephens said with a laugh. "I was just a baby freshman, kind of awestruck and so excited to be there. At the time Florida Southern had been there the previous two years, so it was kind of what we were expecting. I was just following leaders and seniors. This year it’s just very unexpected. And that’s what’s been really fun about it. It’s really hard to get out of our region. To get to host and then get here has been an unbelievable experience.”
The first two days at UWF Field House have gone the same way for the Mocs. They've come out and dropped the opening set and had to play come from behind to advance.
"That seems to be a thing for us in the first set right now," senior Sydney Marshall said. "I definitely think that this being a lot of our first time experiencing all this, coming out in that first set was intimidating. But once we started getting into the flow of things it started getting easier.
"We thrive under pressure. We try not to get too emotional or too jittery. When it comes to get to game point, we just look at each other, take a deep breath and realize that this is no different than any other point."
The Mocs have plenty of fire power. Junior outside hitter Nicole Mattson, senior outside hitter Anna Tovo and junior setter Bethany Besancenez all earned All-American honors and have played like team leaders in Pensacola. Tovo and Mattson have been tops on the team with 32 and 31 kills respectively, while Besancenez has recorded 98 assists as the setter. Sydney Marshall has seemingly elevated her play the past two days with a tremendous 17 kill, five dig, six block performance against Gannon in the semifinals. Allie Geary recorded nine blocks in that same game.
“It’s so special, to be here with 16 of my best friends,” Geary said. “To do it for coach, to do it for this program, it’s unbelievable.”
And then there is Concordia-St. Paul. The Golden Bears enter the finals with a remarkable 33-3 record. They were the No. 2 seed in the Central Region but advanced to Pensacola after defeating Minnesota Duluth in the regional championship. It didn't matter who they played. The Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference and Central Region is a DII volleyball powerhouse. Eighth-seeded Arkansas Tech was undefeated to show just how deep a region it is. Concordia's entire season feels like one long tournament.
"For every match that we play, regardless of who we play, we have to come prepared to scrap and fight every night," head coach Brady Starkey said. "We're used to teams pushing back on us, and us having to fight back. We haven't been the prettiest team compared to some of the teams that we've had in the past. But this team has bought into the fact that maybe we aren't pretty, but if we keep grinding then things are going to happen. They have gotten a lot wins this season just from that fight by them, which shows a lot to their character."
VB: @CSPBearsVB is headed back to the @NCAADII Championship after a sweep of @RUhawks! CSP will face Florida Southern tomorrow night at 5 pm as they search for their 9th title in 11 years! #BeGolden #WeAreCSP #D2VB pic.twitter.com/hVWRm9QJ9I— Concordia St. Paul (@CSPBears) December 9, 2017
Thus far in Pensacola, CSP has yet to drop a set. It swept through New Haven in straight sets in the quarterfinals but was tested in the semifinals against upstart Rockhurst.
"That was a barn burner," Starkey said. "I know it only went three games. But it was a battle that could have gone either team's way. The match could have taken a very different perspective."
The Bears have no shortage of star players. Junior setter Elizabeth Mohr was a first-team All-American while junior Brooklyn Lewis earned second-team honors Mohr has had no problem setting up the ferocious hitters on Concordia, like Hope Schiller and Mariya Sampson. She recorded 49 assists in the three-set victory over Rockhurst.
"I'm extremely lucky as a setter that I have options all over the court," Mohr said. "No matter what rotation we're in I can feel confident in any given hitter at any given time. Obviously we were digging a lot of balls, too, so that's going to help. Being able to spread the ball around opened up some one-on-one's for hitters."
Along with talent by the boatload, this team is armed with experience. Starkey has been here before, as well as more than a handful of returners from last season's championship squad.
"I don't think experience ever hurts," Starkey said. "It still comes down to who's going to execute. It probably helps a little bit. But sometimes if you're the team without a ton of experience, and you don't really know anything and just come out here and compete, that's a good thing, too. I think it could go both ways, we're just going to hope our experience helps."
These two teams met earlier this season. That time, CSP traveled to the Mocs' Lakeland, Florida home and took the match in straight sets. Those were two very different teams though.
"It was so long ago, I don't remember exactly how the game went," Schiller said. "But any team is going to be improved at this point of the season. They've had to battle to get here. But for tomorrow, what really works for us is focusing on our side, and just doing our thing. And that's really the common tone we have going into matches like this."
Will Concordia-St. Paul add to its historic trophy case or can Florida Southern start one of its own? It will all be decided from UWF Field House, Saturday, Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. ET.