PERRYSBURG, Ohio — Seedings for the top four places at the NJCAA Division II National Women’s Volleyball Tournament turned out to be perfect projections.
No. 1-rated Cowley County of Kansas edged No. 2 Parkland (Ill.) 3-2 in the title match. Third-seeded Johnson County (Kan.) beat Oakland (Mich.) 3-1 for third place, after Oakland sidetracked Southwestern’s bid in the quarterfinals.
But in the fifth-place match, the unheralded Spartans shook up the pre-tourney form in a big way. After knocking fifth-seeded Illinois Central into the consolation bracket in the opening round, 12th-seeded Southwestern finished its unlikely run through the national tourney with a 3-0 sweep over defending national champ and 10th-seeded Grand Rapids (Mich.) Saturday afternoon, 25-18, 25-20, 26-24.
The Spartans reached the fifth-place match by defeating Central-Columbus (Neb.) in a hotly-contested consolation match Friday, 25-20, 12-25, 30-28, 25-23. DMACC, the other Iowa regional champion, lost in that consolation round to Grand Rapids, 3-2, and ended up placing eighth after a 3-0 loss to Central-Columbus in the seventh-place match. DMACC was seeded 11th, one spot in front of Southwestern.
Southwestern, which placed third in the ICCAC standings, came on strong at the end of the season and ended up with a 3-1 record at the national tournament to end up 37-10. Grand Rapids closed at 33-8.
Since Melissa Blessington took over as head coach, the rapid rise to national stature has shown records of 10-25, 25-17 and 37-10. When this season started, Blessington was excited to see SWCC selected as “a team to watch” when the national ratings were released. DMACC and Kirkwood earned spots in the national poll.
But Southwestern stood above them both when the curtain closed on 2013.
“We were picked fourth in our conference and finished third,” Blessington said. “It was nice to qualify for nationals, but we didn’t want to just get there with this team. We knew we had something special. Winning that first match was so key.
“We weren’t huge,” added Blessington, assisted by volunteer Mallory Peterson during the postseason. “We had the two shortest middle hitters in the tournament in Mel Mangrum and Alex Duffy. But we just have good volleyball players who can do everything. We’re the best out-of-system team in the tournament, and we played with enthusiasm.”
That extra tick of energy came in handy during the consolation semifinal match against Central-Columbus Friday. After SWCC won the first set 25-20, the Lady Raiders rolled to a 25-12 win to draw even.
Columbus was serving set point at 24-20 in the pivotal third game. Blessington called a timeout.
“I said we’re at the national tournament,” Blessington said. “Let’s get excited about it. Play with more enthusiasm. We can come back from this.”
Janaya Fox, who was named to the all-tournament team, terminated the next point to make it 24-21. Cassidy Yong then served four straight points — two on long rallies and another on a sharp angled kill by right-side hitter Shelby Sullivan.
But SWCC couldn’t finish it with one more, as a tip kill by Central knotted it 25-25. Finally, a kill by Allyson Kocour made it 29-28 and Sullivan found an opening in the Lady Raider court after her own serve for the 30-28 triumph.
“I knew that once we did that, we’d be OK,” Blessington said. “Central kind of took a break at 20-24, it happens. We took advantage. If we had fallen behind (2-1) it would have been tougher. We’d only gone to five sets once this season, in our first home match with Indian Hills.”
The match ended on a controversial note, as Fox’s attack down the line appeared to be out of bounds, but it was ruled off a Central deflection to finish Southwestern’s 25-23 win, pushing the Spartans to Saturday’s fifth-place match.
Even the broadcaster on NJCAA.TV noted that Southwestern seemed to be the more “interested” team in the placing match against Grand Rapids, last year’s champion. The Spartans notched wins of 25-18, 25-20 before falling behind 19-15 in set three.
“We were playing so relaxed and making so few errors, I wasn’t really nervous even when we got down in the third game,” Blessington said. “I told them, I think we’re going to win this. It was like we were playing with no pressure. We were already in the fifth-place match, where we weren’t expected to be, and we just played. Our serving killed them. They had trouble getting into system.”
The active Spartan defensive back row came up with some spectacular digs as Southwestern fought back. Sophomore libero Molly Schimp, the leader of that defense along with Ashley Strong, Serena Yong and Fox, puncuated the 26-24 clincher with an ace serve.
Suddenly, a Spartan team that was once 11-5 with league losses to DMACC and Kirkwood, was presented the award for fifth place in the nation.
“It’s such a special group,” Blessington said. “Nothing fazed them. Cassidy Yong got hit in the eye in warmups (Saturday) with broken blood vessels in her eye, and went out and played anyway. This team didn’t feel stressed out at all. They were playing at such a high level and so consistent.”
Ending their SWCC careers in the national tourney were sophomores Jenna Casey, Fox, Duffy, Mangrum, Strong, Schimp and Serena Yong.
Freshmen, the foundation of next year’s team, are Kocour, Sullivan, Cassidy Yong, Kirsten Anderson and Sydney Whitmarsh.
Archived telecasts of Southwestern’s national tournament matches are available at http://www.njcaatv.com/volleyballchamp/.
SWCC 3, Central-Columbus (Neb.) 1
Digs — Molly Schimp 30, Janaya Fox 20, Serena Yong 15, Cassidy Yong 11.
Set assists — C. Yong 45, S. Yong 7.
Kills — C. Yong 12, Shelby Sullivan 12, Fox 12.
Blocks — Sullivan 2.
Serving — Schimp 13-16 (3).
SWCC 3, Grand Rapids (Mich.) 0
Digs — Fox 25, Schimp 16, Ashley Strong 14, S. Yong 12, C. Yong 12.
Set assists — C. Yong 41.
Kills — Allyson Kocour 10, Fox 10, Mel Mangrum 9, Sullivan 8, Alex Duffy 8.
Blocks — Duffy 5, Sullivan 3, Mangrum 2.
Serving — Schimp 13-13 (1), C. Yong 11-13 (1).
All-tournament — Janaya Fox.