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Tommies earn first NCAA volleyball championship in school history

By , Reporter  |  Saturday, November 17, 2012 7:58 PM

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HOLLAND, Mich. — Outside hitter Jill Greenfield’s 14 kills played a pivotal role in the St. Thomas volleyball team’s five-set victory over No. 1 Calvin (Mich.) for the NCAA title, making it the first in school history.

With a record-breaking attendance of 3,423 fans, the DeVos Fieldhouse showed a maroon and gold sea of fans rooting for the Knights (33-3). With a sparse Tommie turnout, St. Thomas (40-1) had the odds stacked against them.

Three St. Thomas players received All-American honors: opposite hitter Sara Atkinson, defensive specialist Kaiti Wachter and Greenfield. Greenfield was also named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.

Coach Thanh Pham said he is proud of how the team handled the game’s atmosphere.

“To be down two sets in that environment and to be able to pull out the win speaks volumes of our girls and how much they wanted it,” Pham said. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

Set No. 1 started in the Knights’ favor as the Tommies began to fall behind. The Tommies kept battling as Greenfield tipped over the Knights’ block, reducing the deficit to 14-9. Atkinson gave the team a chance when she tipped off the Knights’ block, putting it at 23-12. Atkinson hit .455 with 12 kills for the match. The set ended with a Calvin ace and a 25-13 win.

Defensive specialist Kia Johnson said it was hard to overcome the Calvin crowd.

“(Calvin’s) crowd helped fuel their own momentum, so Calvin had momentum on top of the crowd having momentum,” Johnson said. “It was really hard for us to combat that.”

Atkinson continued to contribute to the team’s fight heading into the second set. Crushing an overpassed ball, she put her team two points behind the Knights. The Tommies trailed the entire second set until Wachter aced the opposing team’s serve-receive.

Setter Sarah Kosbab made an aggressive set when she pulled a tight pass out of the net for Foley to crank down on the Knights’ side. Despite their strong fight, St. Thomas lost the set 25-17.

Just when it seemed the match was going to the Knights, the Tommies brought intensity to the third set. Greenfield pressed a solo block on the first point to give her team momentum. St. Thomas kept rolling ahead and secured its lead when Foley and middle blocker MacKenzie Piechowski posted a double block, putting the Tommies ahead 14-11. Defensive specialist McKenna Reagan killed an overpassed ball to give the Tommies control of the game. The set ended with a kill by Greenfield painted down the opposing team’s line, giving St. Thomas the 25-18 win.

Greenfield said winning the third set helped pump up the Tommie crowd.

“We knew in that third set once we started out strong we could get our fans into it and ourselves into it, that their fans would no longer be a factor,” Greenfield said. “That was huge for us.”

With the match on the line, the Tommies carried their momentum from the previous set into set No. 4. Atkinson and Foley kept the team dynamic together when they pressed a double block, keeping the Tommie lead at 10-7. With a long rally in the middle of the set, Reagan executed a successful roll shot to an open spot on Calvin’s side. Foley crushed a hard kill to end the set 25-16 in the Tommies’ favor.

Laying it all out on the line for the title, setter Katie Maher aced the Knights’ serve-receive. Maher had 24 of the team’s 59 assists. The set was a battle of heart as the Tommies kept pushing toward the finish line, the title in sight. Knights setter Megan Rietema stunted the Tommie defense when she dumped a ball over the net, tying up the set. It wasn’t until middle blocker Paige Brimeyer smashed a ball through the Knights’ block that history was in the making. Brimeyer had another kill to secure the match point for St. Thomas. After a long, hard fight, the Tommies defeated the Knights 15-9.

Pham said the team knows how proud he is of its victory.

“We haven’t actually had a chance to go back to our locker room, and I haven’t been able to tell them how I feel, but I think they know,” Pham said. “You can guess how it feels to win a national championship after being down 2-0.”

Foley said the win hasn’t hit her yet.

“Sometimes it just feels like we just won a game and it doesn’t really hit you,” Foley said. “And then there’s just those moments when you see your best friend get ‘Most Outstanding Player’ or when you hug your dad or when you get to hug your coach finally after the whole thing, it just hits you for a moment.”

Jane Canney, vice president for student affairs, said she hopes Tommie volleyball fans will come out and welcome the team’s arrival home Sunday morning.

“We want to have a welcome and congratulations greetings to the winning championship volleyball team,” Canney said. “The bus should be arriving in the area north of the (Anderson Athletic and Recreation Complex in the turnaround between 10 and 10:15 a.m.”

Sean Crotty can be reached at crot0230@stthomas.edu.

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