I saw something on Twitter (@D3Playbook) asking what was the greatest DIII volleyball championship match and thought it deserved some research. For the past couple of years, I’ve been recreating the NCAA Brackets for all of the NCAA Tournaments since 1981 since they seem to be lost in a graphical format. As I’m going through the data, I’m often left wondering how a certain set or match would have felt based simply on the scores I’m transcribing. Well, for this effort, let’s see if we can rehash the top 3 NCAA Women’s DIII Volleyball Finals.
In my selection criteria, the final match needed to go 5 sets. I know we’ve all seen or been apart of amazing 3- and 4-set matches but you really need the 5th set to ramp up the pressure. I also was interested in close sets and especially if we had a 2-point win in the 5th set. A runaway 5th set ended up ruining any chance a final match had on my list as the top 3 all ended with 2- or 3-point margins in that deciding set. The final thing that jumped out at me was where the match was played and what the crowd had to be like. There were a number of interesting matches that didn’t make my list simply because the sets weren’t very close. Yes, it may have gone 5 but I couldn’t “feel” the excitement leading up to the deciding set.
Before we get into the list, there have been 39 NCAA Tournament Finals for DIII women’s volleyball. Of those 39 finals, 15 have gone to a fifth set. Interestingly to note, we’ve haven’t had a 5-set final in the last 5-years (all have been 3-set sweeps). For the last 3-years, the NCAA has reseeded the Elite 8 in order to get fairer matchups but this has done nothing so far to improve the final match.
The #3 spot was difficult to fill. A lot of these finals looked the same when just going through the scores. In the end, I chose the 2007 Washington-St. Louis victory over Whitewater (hosted at Illinois Wesleyan). What I liked about this match was that Whitewater fought back for a 2-point 4th set win in order to force a deciding game and in that deciding game we had a final 15-13 score. What didn’t help this match was the smaller crowd (503 reported), which you typically get at a neutral site. With that said, IWU is located right between WashU and Whitewater (169 miles and 177 miles respectively). Quick reminder that in 2007 volleyball was using rally score to 30 points with a 15-point fifth set.
This was the third straight year that Whitewater finished in the top 4 which included their championship from 2005. This would be the 9th championship in WashU history and the first since 2003. They would go on and with their 10th just two years later. It really was a year where two powerhouse programs at their peak collided. The first game was close early as the teams were tied at 8-8 but WashU would go on a 7-2 run opening a 5-point lead. Whitewater came storming back to get within one point at 16-15. This set saw 5 ties but only one lead change and it was a late run by WashU that opened the 5-point margin of victory. WashU would hit 0.218 in the set while Whitewater managed only 0.105 but things would change in set two.
Set two was pretty much a 180 of the first set with WashU hitting only 0.109 while Whitewater hit 0.235 on only 4 errors. The score would end 30-23 but was tied early at 7-7. A 6-0 scoring run broke the set open and WashU never got within 2-points the rest of the way.
Set three wasn’t the prettiest and would end up with the largest margin of victory with WashU winning 30-22. The game was actually tied at 18-18 before a big WashU run but the set was marred by hitting errors as both teams would finish with 9 errors (Whitewater hit 0.000 in the set). Oddly, this set had the most ties of any in the match as it was pretty back and forth until the 19th point.
To this point, the match certainly doesn’t look like something that would make my top 3 but the final two sets would change that viewpoint. Set four would end 30-28 in favor of Whitewater but it was one that was at the same time be close but also never see a lead change and only one tied score. Whitewater would have leads of 4-0 and 9-3 and 21-15 but things tightened up after a WashU 5-1 scoring run. Whitewater would hold a 27-24 lead before WashU got within one point and finally tied the set at 28-28. I think most teams trailing in a final 2-1 and getting tied late in a must-win set four would probably fold but it was actually WashU with the errors that led to the 30-28 win. (WashU ended that set with a service error and then a hitting error.) You had to figure both teams felt really confident going into that final set.
Set five was a doozy. It would end 15-13 and there would be 7 tied scores and 5 lead changes. WashU had their finest hitting performance of the day going 0.241 with only 2 errors. Whitewater would hold their last lead at 11-10 before a 4-0 run by WashU gave them a 14-11 lead and 3 match points to play with. Play with them they did as Whitewater would get a block and then a kill to close the margin to 14-13. Championship point would be a kill by WashU Ellen Bruegge. Alli Alberts would be named MVP of the tournament and finished with 15 kills in the finals although she made a number of errors leading to a low 0.083 hitting percentage. WashU would also have All-Tournament members in Audra Janak (58 assists and 14 digs) and Haleigh Spencer (19 kills and 31 digs). Whitewater would have All-Tournament members in Kate Lazotte (57 assists and 22 digs) and Kelly Sorensen (16 kills and 23 digs). WashU finished the year at 33-5 after starting the season at 7-4. Whitewater would graduate 5 seniors that led their program to a 145-21 record during their time there.
I promise my West Region bias didn’t impact this selection but my #2 choice is the 2001 La Verne championship over Whitewater in 5-sets. (My apologies to Whitewater for being on the losing side in both matches so far.) This match was actually hosted at Whitewater and drew a crowd of 1,692 partisan Warhawk supporters. Reminder that in 2001, the scoring rules were the same as in 2007 (30-point rally with 15-point rally in the 5th set).
First problem with this recap is that there really isn’t a lot out in the world wide web about the 2001 tournament let alone the finals. I’ll do my best. Set one was a blowout by Whitewater that ended 30-22 and it probably felt to everyone that this was to be expected. Whitewater had finished the 2000 season as the runner-up and were now hosting the finals in front of a very loud supportive crowd. The Warhawks had won 43 straight matches at home and had been the #1 team in the nation for much of the year. In fact, not to spoil things but this match was really 2-points from being a Whitewater sweep.
Those two points would be the margin of victory in set two as La Verne were forced into extended action before evening up the match at 33-31. The final point came from an Adriana Contreras service ace. (Interesting to note that as a middle blocker with no libero rule, this was only the second time Contreras had served all year as La Verne was out of subs.)
Whitewater had to be surprised by the turn of events in set two but it didn’t bother them in set three as they jumped all over La Verne taking a 30-16 win. La Verne now down 2-1 may have been the only people in a 1000-mile radius that believed they still had a chance.
Maybe Whitewater was a little overconfident but, regardless, La Verne controlled most of set 4 ultimately winning 30-26 to force a fifth set. To this point, powered by two relatively easy set wins, Whitewater was statistically the better team. They would go on and hit 0.217 for the match while La Verne only managed 0.171. The interesting thing about the match, however, was that La Verne was basically a true outcome bunch when it came to hitting. They were either making an error or putting the ball down. They would make 16 more hitting errors than Whitewater but would finish the match with more kills. The tipping point, as it would turn out, would be the defense. La Verne would finish with 20 more digs. Another problem for Whitewater, although it wasn’t captured in the statistics, was that the Warhawks attempted to implement a pressure service game but ended up missing a number of them giving La Verne some critical points along the way.
A big factor in set five had to be the fast start by La Verne as they jumped out to a 6-2 lead prompting a Whitewater timeout. This had to silence the crowd a bit and probably put the first real thought that Whitewater might end up losing this match. The lead didn’t change much the rest of the way as La Verne got the score to 14-10 and had 4 match points. Whitewater charged back taking the next two points before Contreras (again) ended the set, this time with a kill. The silence in that gym must have been eerie. It doesn’t appear that the NCAA named an MVP prior to 2004 but La Verne did get three on the All-Tournament team. They were Amy Kratochivil (18 kills and 28 digs), Stacy Lupu (16 kills and 10 digs) and Ryan Winn (64 assists and 24 digs). If an MVP would have been named then it looks like (from what I could find) that Winn would have been the choice. Whitewater placed twin sisters Allison Erickson (14 kills and 21 digs) and Melinda Erickson (24 kills and 23 digs) on the team. Both were All-Americans with Allison also being named the DIII Player of the Year. Another interesting note I found researching this was that La Verne actually had lost one of their best hitters (Amy Smith) in warm-ups prior to their semi-finals match. Finally, there were a number of comments from La Verne that indicated they didn’t feel respected when they came to the Final 4 (only four teams came to the championship site back then). Interesting because La Verne had only lost one match on the year and that was due to a forfeit. The forfeit was due to lack of players that resulted from suspensions after an altercation away from the gym.
My top choice for best NCAA Tournament Final is the 2013 Calvin victory over Cal Lutheran hosted by Hope and drew 3,356 mostly Calvin fans. This is the only finals in women’s history that had an extended set five but more on that later. (Note that the format for this championship follows our current scoring rules.)
The Hope/Calvin rivalry is always big but it was really huge in these years. Starting in 2013, Calvin and Hope would win three of the next four championships. The one they didn’t win would go to Cal Lutheran who found themselves on the short end in this final. Calvin is just 37 miles from Hope so this was definitely a partisan crowd and, frankly, it might have been the difference in the outcome of this match. Thankfully, there is still some video from this night on the web if you care to find it. The best thing a team playing in front of 3,000+ fans that want you to lose is to take the first set and that’s what Cal Lutheran did 25-20. It actually wasn’t even that close. Calvin did close to a two-point margin at 17-15 but a 7-2 Regal run shut down Calvin and the fans. Calvin’s Maggie Kamp would get three kills once Cal Lutheran had set point but the Knights only got within 4 points at the end. Cal Lutheran would hit 0.316 in that first set while Calvin managed only 0.150.
Things actually got worse for Calvin in set two. This would turn out to be a 25-12 drubbing as the Regals closed within one set of the championship. Cal Lutheran was unstoppable hitting 0.342 while Calvin hit only 0.105. Calvin could only string two consecutive points together once in the set while Cal Lu finished the set on a 10-1 run. To say no team needed the 10-minute intermission more than Calvin is not an exaggeration and to say no team used it as well might not be either.
Set three not only went to Calvin 25-22 but it also brought the fans back into the match. I’ve written about the importance of Points/Set so just know that Cal Lutheran had 18 kills and one service ace in the third set and lost. That’s elite level stuff by the Regals but it was offset by Calvin hitting 0.250 with only 2 errors. (If counting at home, that’s 21 of the 22 points Cal Lu would score in set three. The last point was from a Calvin service error.) Bottom line this set, as well as the match, hinged on Calvin playing near perfectly. Anything short and Cal Lutheran wins this final in 3 sets. As you might expect from my description, this set was back and forth until Calvin took the lead at 14-13. From there, they were able to open a four-point lead at 18-14, which would narrow to two-points but never get any closer. Calvin would get three of their six blocks on the night in this set, which certainly contributed to the start of their epic comeback.
Set four was awesome, if you were a Calvin fan, and reports from the match said they were also going nuts. Calvin would force the deciding set with a 25-17 score and where they were in control the entire time. Leading 20-14, Cal Lutheran did stage a small comeback to close within 3 points but 5 straight points by Calvin closed out the set.
I mentioned that this was the only finals match in DIII history that went into overtime, as it were. It is also the only finals where each team had at least one match point to win the championship. At this point I should probably talk about Cal Lutheran’s Kylie McLogan and Calvin’s Maggie Kamp. Kamp would finish with 27 kills while McLogan would get 28 kills on the night. In the fifth set, Kamp would get 7 kills and McLogan would get 8. It really echoed a pattern that you see in the box score where Calvin played great but Cal Lutheran always did slightly better. Cal Lutheran would finish the night with more kills, better hitting percentage, more digs, more blocks and more points. They just didn’t win the trophy. In the fifth set, it was really about McLogan and Kamp as each team went to their best player to decide the match.
(Since I’m talking about “best players”, let me just say that Maggie Kamp was named the MVP of the tournament. All-Tournament players from Calvin were also Megan Rietema and Kristen Zietse while Cal Lutheran placed Kylie McLogan and Allie Eason on the team.)
Set five started with a McLogan kill. She would have been on the back row. It was followed by a kill by Kamp. She started on the front row. With Calvin leading 4-3, McLogan rotated to the front row and promptly got her second kill. It was followed by a Kamp kill as she then rotated to the service position. Cal Lutheran would then go on a run powered by McLogan’s 4 kills and would open an 11-7 lead as she rotated to the service position. It would be 15-15 when she rotated back to the front as Maggie Kamp would get three kills across the front during this time. At this point, Cal Lutheran had to be discouraged by losing the lead but they were one rotation from Kamp leaving the front row and they now had McLogan where they needed her. I did gloss over one important moment as Calvin actually had their first match point at 15-14 after a kill by, you guessed it, Maggie Kamp. Stacey Kamp (Maggie’s sister) would be called for a net violation to tie the set at 15s. (Editor’s note: I assume it was a net violation as she was given a blocking error.) What happened next was rather remarkable as Maggie Kamp was then blocked giving Cal Lutheran their first and last match point at 16-15. It was at this point that the two power players collided as Calvin fought off the match point with a kill by Maggie Kamp where McLogan was call for a bocking error. Maggie Kamp was now rotating to the back row and you had to think Cal Lutheran now had this match under control. They were plus 5 in these next three rotations earlier in the set but Calvin would get their second match point on an attack error by McLogan. Stranger, with Kamp serving, she would get a back row set for the match only to be blocked and the set was again tied this time at 17-17. Another back row attack, this time successful for Kamp, gave Calvin their third match point but a McLogan kill evened things back up at 18-18. At this point, Calvin turned it over to Ellie Diepersloot for a kill and then a perfect tip from Megan Rietema gave Calvin the victory on their 4th match point of the night. A truly deserving ending to unquestionably the best NCAA DIII Volleyball Tournament Final in our game’s history. I’m fine if you want to argue #2 and #3 but not this one. It was the match that will forever define classic in our sport.