With a 3-0 (25-19, 25-16, 25-20) win over Hartford and a 3-1 (19-25, 25-23, 25-19, 25-20) victory over 2009 NCAA Tournament participant Niagara, the Valparaiso volleyball team earned the tournament championship at the La Salle Invitational in Philadelphia, Pa. Saturday.
The tournament title was the 12th such during in-season tournament action for head coach Carin Avery and the Crusaders in her ninth season at the helm of the program. It was the first-such title for the Crusaders since winning the championship at the Shamrock Invitational at Notre Dame in 2008.
“We're super excited to have won the tournament today, it feels really good to have earned a championship,” said Avery. “I'm really proud of the way the girls responded after yesterday's matches. None of us were satisfied with how we played on day one. We knew we had to eliminate a lot of our errors, and I really thought we did so today.”
Katie Britton (Mishawaka, Ind./Marian) stood out offensively for the Crusaders in both matches on Saturday. After Friday's pair of matches where no Valpo player reached double figures in kills, Britton passed the mark in both contests on Saturday. The junior hit a remarkable .478 with 13 kills in the sweep of Hartford and followed against Niagara by matching her career high of 18 kills, leading all players in the category in both showings.
The day's opening match against Hartford saw the Crusader offense shine in the first set, swinging at a .393 clip. A 15-6 spurt mid-set, featuring four kills from Britton, took a meager 4-3 Valpo lead and extended it to 19-9, giving the Crusaders full control of the opening frame. The Hawks made a late-set run to close within four points at 22-18, but kills by Britton and Tara Diebler (Indianapolis, Ind./Franklin Central) helped end the set and give the Crusaders the 1-0 lead.
While the offense was the story of the first set, the defense got the job done in the final two sets, holding the Hartford offense to identical .031 hitting percentages in both sets. The second set was the closest of the three, as the Hawks pulled within one point midway through at 14-13. But the Crusaders closed the frame on an 11-2 run, led by two kills by Amy Groesbeck (Wheaton, Ill./North) and a pair of kills plus an ace from Sarah Dooms (Greenwood, Ind./Center Grove), to take the 2-0 advantage.
It looked like an easy sweep was in the cards for the Crusaders when they jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the third set, but Hartford (0-2) wouldn't go down without a fight, coming back and tying the set as late as 16-16. After a service error gave the serve back to Valpo, freshman Ariel Cudney (LaPorte, Ind./LaPorte) entered the match for the first time, stepped to the service line, and promptly served three aces in a four-point span to give the Crusaders a 21-16 advantage. The match would eventually end on Valpo's third opportunity, as Britton teamed up with freshman Janelle Hobbs (Hartland, Wis./Arrowhead) on a block to cap the sweep.
Valpo hit a solid .253 for the match against the Hawks, led by Britton's stellar performance up front. Jenny Pokorny (Geneva, Ill./Geneva) handed out 21 assists and also tallied seven kills on just 11 swings, hitting .636. Taylor Root (Jenison, Mich./Jenison) led the back-line effort with 15 digs, pacing all players.
The opening set against Niagara, the 2009 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions who returned all ten letterwinners from a year ago, was in Valpo's favor early on. But with the Crusaders up 10-7, the Purple Eagles scored four straight points, and then following a pair of kills by Katie Layman (LaPorte, Ind./New Prairie), Niagara scored four in a row again to take a 15-12 lead. Valpo closed back to within one point on two occasions, but could not knot up the score as the Purple Eagles earned the opening set victory.
The second set turned out to be the most tightly contested of the match, featuring 12 ties and seven lead changes. Neither team ever pulled ahead by more than three points, and following an 11-8 Valpo lead, the set remained within two points either way for the remainder. Trailing 21-19 late, the Crusaders got a block by Layman and Britton and a kill from Diebler to pull even, but Niagara responded with two points of its own to force a Valpo timeout down 23-21. Out of the stoppage, Diebler and Britton posted back-to-back kills, and after a Niagara hitting error gave the Crusaders set point, Diebler came up with a huge solo block at the net to even the match at one set apiece.
Valpo led nearly start to finish in the third frame, never trailing and only falling into a tie on three occasions, but Niagara threatened midway through the set with a four-point spurt to close within 15-14. That's when the Crusader defense tightened up at the net, seemingly getting a big touch on every attack to slow the Purple Eagle offense, and Valpo ended up taking ten of the last 15 points of the set, led by three kills and a block from Britton. The Valpo offense, which had been held under .100 hitting combined in the first two sets, swung at a .295 clip in the third set, but that was only a prelude to what was to come in the fourth.
The Crusaders had a pair of attack errors in the first five points of the fourth set, but would go the final 40 points of the match without making another attack error, putting down 16 kills in the set to swing at a .412 clip for the decisive frame. Despite the remarkable offensive efficiency, Valpo still had to fight to earn the win, as Niagara (2-1) led for much of the set and was up by three points late at 19-16. But the Crusaders closed the match on a 9-1 run, sparked by a pair of blocks by Diebler and Pokorny, to earn the tournament title.
Britton's 18 kills paced the Valpo offensive attack, while the Crusader middles, Diebler and Layman, each tallied 12 kills and hit above .300. Pokorny set a new career high with 44 assists and also picked up 14 digs for her third double-double of the year. Root led five Crusaders in double figures with 25 digs, while Dooms posted 17 and Cudney and Andrea Balsis (Benton Harbor, Mich./Coloma) registered ten each as Valpo finished the match with an even 100 digs. Diebler led the Crusader effort at the net with four blocks.
“I was really happy with our serve receive, it really came along well today,” said Avery. “Defensively, our block and back row combined to help keep a lot of balls off the ground, and offensively we eliminated a lot of errors and really put pressure on our opponents. I thought the senior class played extremely well today, both on the court and with their leadership off the court, and I'm just really proud of all four of them.”
Valparaiso (3-1) travels south next weekend, heading to Boone, N.C. to compete in the Appalachian Invitational. The Crusaders kick off tournament action Friday, Sept. 3 against USC Upstate at 3:30 p.m. CDT, and all the action can be heard live on WVUR, 95.1 FM, Valparaiso and online at www.valpoathletics.com.