HOLLAND, Mich. — Defensive specialist Kaiti Wachter’s 24 digs pushed the St. Thomas volleyball team to a 3-0 victory over Elmhurst (Ill.) in an NCAA national semifinal Friday at Hope College, advancing the team to its first national championship match in program history.
Coach Thanh Pham said he is proud of the team and where its priorities are.
“Regardless of the outcome yesterday, today, tomorrow, I couldn’t be more proud of our team,” Pham said. “They put academics first. They work hard at not only being a good volleyball player but a good student and professional in every aspect of what they do.”
Along with nine digs in the match, defensive specialist Kia Johnson received the NCAA’s Elite 89 Award, an honor given to the student-athlete with the highest cumulative grade point average among the competitors. Johnson, a senior, has maintained a 3.96 GPA.
Anticipation filled DeVos Fieldhouse when both teams stepped onto the court for the first set. Outside hitter Nicole Potts sparked her team when she killed an overpassed ball by the Bluejays. Potts had seven kills throughout the match.
St. Thomas struggled early until Johnson stepped up to the serving line and aced the Bluejays’ defense, trailing them by five points. St. Thomas had three aces for the match.
It was a point tug-of-war between the opposing teams until outside hitter Jill Greenfield tooled an Elmhurst block to tie the set. Middle blocker Kelly Foley snagged the set for the Tommies when she ripped a ball off of a quick set, winning the first set 25-22.
Pham said the team had to work hard to control what happened on its side of the net.
“We dropped the big lead based on our hitting errors,” Pham said. “Knowing that, we figured (out) that we’re in control of our own destiny.”
Wachter said she is proud of how the team played.
“I just have a lot of confidence in our girls,” Wachter said.
Heading into the second set, Wachter brought momentum when she passed a ball from the back row, stunting the Bluejays’ defense for a kill. Middle blocker Paige Brimeyer kept the energy going, putting a solo block straight down onto Elmhurst’s side for the 10-9 lead. Brimeyer hit .294 for the match.
Greenfield extended the Tommies’ lead as she got up and tooled Elmhurst’s block from the back row. Potts struck again when she crushed a deep kill to lock in set point. St. Thomas took the second set 25-23.
Greenfield said the team played “Tommie volleyball” on the court.
“We played our kind of volleyball, which is hard work and effort,” Greenfield said. “We knew that if we controlled our side, it’d be hard for them to stop us.”
With two set victories under their belt, the Tommies took the court for the third set with an edge. Greenfield had a kill after Brimeyer dug a ball off of a tough Bluejays’ serve and a set by setter Katie Maher. The set proved to be a back-and-forth battle between the teams.
Opposite hitter Sara Atkinson regained a 9-8 St. Thomas lead when she pressed a solo block. Atkinson hit .250 for the match.
It wasn’t until the Tommie defense dug a ball out of the scorer’s table and was put down by Greenfield that the team battled its way back into the set. Middle blocker Mackenzie Piechowski secured set point when she tipped to a vacant spot on the Bluejays’ side of the net off of a Wachter dig.
The set ended 26-24 with the Tommies punching their ticket to the championship game.
Greenfield said the team is laying it all out on the line for this tournament.
“We knew coming into this whole tournament that we weren’t here to play on day one or two but to play on day three,” Greenfield said. “We know that this is where we’re supposed to be.”
Sean Crotty can be reached at email@example.com.