Rocky road to the second round, Tommies defeat Cornell

Middle blocker Kelly Foley’s 22 kills guided the St. Thomas volleyball team to a victory over Cornell Thursday at Schoenecker Arena in the first round of the NCAA regional tournament.

St. Thomas (35-1) advances to the second round to play Wisconsin-Eau Claire at 7 p.m. Friday. Eau Claire defeated Wartburg in five sets earlier Thursday.

Coach Thanh Pham said he was excited to come out with a win against Cornell.

“Cornell did a really good job playing us,” Pham said. “We’re just happy to come out with a ‘W’.”

The Tommies won the five-set battle over the Rams as the teams came in with very different records: the heavily-favored Tommies at 34-1 and the Rams at 20-10.

Outside hitter Jill Greenfield said she appreciates that the team has a chance to play again.

“Right now, it’s just win and advance however you can,” Greenfield said. “(I’m) just thankful that we have another day together.”

A restless crowd looked on as the Tommies stepped onto the court to start set No. 1. Greenfield propelled her team forward with a kill from the back row, giving the Tommies a four-point advantage over the Rams. Greenfield hit .200 with 13 kills for the match, and was the Tommies’ second kill leader.

Foley was a weapon for the Tommies as well. Her selective roll shot off of a scramble play put the Tommies ahead 16-8 in the first set. Dominating point by point, the Tommies surged ahead when Greenfield put a kill down the line, ending the set 25-13.

Despite a loss in the first set, Cornell came into set No. 2 with new life and renewed energy. Battling back and forth, point by point, the Rams pulled away from the Tommies. The Rams took advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses to gain a 12-8 lead.

Outside hitter Mariah Brandly and middle blocker Taylor Dicus stuffed Foley with a double block, putting their team five points ahead. Tommie opposite hitter Sara Atkinson gave her team a fighting chance when she ripped the ball down the line. Atkinson had 10 kills against Cornell.

The Rams stopped the Tommies dead in their tracks and ended set No. 2, 25-17 when the team’s offense crushed a ball down on the Tommies defense.

Pham said the team’s play affected who controlled the game.

“When we played well we were fine, and when we didn’t, it cost us,” Pham said. “We knew if we played well we could control the match.”

Greenfield said both teams had their time to shine during the match.

“We knew they were going to come out a lot tougher because we came out with a lot of fire,” Greenfield said. “We tried to counter it, tried to fight it back, but they came out strong.”

Set No. 3 lit a fire under both teams, but the Rams took the early lead. Middle blocker Paige Brimeyer went up against the Rams’ solo block and crushed the ball, reducing her team’s deficit by two points. It wasn’t until late in the set that Foley got up and smashed the ball, winning a long rally for her team. Cornell managed to stay ahead despite Foley’s kill, ending the set 25-19 for the Rams.

Foley said overall consistency played a crucial role in the team’s success.

“We just can’t play up and down anymore,” Foley said. “We just need to play how we know how to play and play it the entire game.”

With the season at risk, the Tommies laid it on the line in set No. 4 thanks to Greenfield’s strong court presence. Greenfield ripped through the Rams’ double block and put her team ahead 13-6. Atkinson had a crafty shot when she pushed the ball deep late in the set, securing a 10-point lead. The set ended with another well-executed Foley shot, putting the score at 25-15.

The final set proved to be a monumental game for the Tommies as the tension between the teams and the crowd in the gym grew. The Tommies kept the Rams scoreless for eight points. Cornell was able to battle back and trail the Tommies just 10-8. Another Greenfield pound for 15-12 secured St. Thomas’ ticket to the semifinal round.

Foley said set No. 4’s momentum carried into the final game.

“We were excited that we were coming out and playing again,” Foley said. “We just wanted to keep it going.”

The opportunity to play one more match together is what keeps the team going, Pham said.

“The wins and losses will take care of themselves,” Pham said. “They’re fighting to stay together.”

Sean Crotty can be reached at