Valparaiso earned its first trip ever to the NCAA Tournament after posting a heartstopping five-game victory (30-27, 30-25, 19-30, 22-30, 15-13) over the second-seeded Golden Eagles, who had won the last six Mid-Con Tourney titles. The victory, which was the school-record 27th of the year for the Crusaders, gave them their first Mid-Con Volleyball Tourney title since 1996.
Valparaiso, which captured its first-ever Mid-Con regular-season title in 2003, completed a season sweep of Oral Roberts and handed the Golden Eagles their first-ever Mid-Con Tourney loss in 14 outings. The victory capped an emotional three days which saw Crusader head coach Carin Avery gave birth to her first child, the team win a semifinal match playing for assistant coach Sue Ushela, and Avery return to the bench for the championship win.
"This has been the best weekend of my life," Avery said. "I'm so happy for the seniors who've worked four hard years and the rest of the team has fed off of that. This is the brightest moment in Valpo volleyball history."
Valpo won three straight Mid-Con Volleyball Tourney titles from 1994-96, but that reign ended once Oral Roberts joined the Mid-Con fold. The Golden Eagles won each crown from 1997-2002.
With Avery back on the bench just 48 hours after giving birth to her first child, Valparaiso (27-7) used a decided advantage in the blocks department to take game one, 30-27. Oral Roberts (21-13) erased a 10-7 deficit with consecutive kills from Maja Devic, Ori Zuzic and Cristiane Alves, and took an 11-10 lead on a hitting error by Valpo's Liz Mikos (Dundee, Ill./Jacobs H.S.). From there, the two teams were involved in nine ties and lead changes, until the host Crusaders were finally able to gain a lead of 27-24 on two Golden Eagle hitting errors and a Mikos kill. Oral Roberts closed to within two points on two occasions, but a service error from Zuzic ended the game. She had seven kills to lead all players in game one, and the Golden Eagles held a big lead in kills (24-15). However, Valpo's four team blocks and two service aces made up that difference.
Game two involved two long runs, but the Crusaders prevailed again, 30-26. Down 9-6, Valpo scored 15 of the next 16 points to take a 21-10 lead. Oral Roberts answered right back, though, by outscoring the Crusaders by a 16-5 count to cut the lead to 26-24; Zuzic had five of her seven second-game kills in that run. However, Valpo got two kills from Lauren Moulton (Elgin, Ill./Larkin H.S.), who had kills in the frame, to close the game.
Despite posting 10 kills in the first two games, Oral Roberts' Becky Dreher moved from the outside to the libero position before game three, and Becky Brunelle took over on the outside. That moved paid dividends for the Golden Eagles, who easily won game three, 30-
19. Dreher collected eight digs in that game alone, while Brunelle put down four kills and Alves had three aces. Oral Roberts led by just an 18-16 count, but used five Valpo attack errors to close the game on a 12-3 run.
The momentum that Oral Roberts built to close game two carried on into game four, as the Golden Eagles were in control of that game from the beginning before going on to win, 30-22, to force the decisive game five. Up just 9-8, Oral Roberts went on a 13-0 run to take control of the game; Zuzic had four service aces in that streak and served 12 consecutive points. Valpo tried to make it interesting, but could only close the gap to nine (28-19).
Neither team was able to do much in the beginning of the fifth game, as they traded the lead in the first few serves. Valpo scored three straight points to take a 6-4 lead, but the Golden Eagles answered right back to tie the game, and took a 7-6 lead on Kim Snow's kill. Moulton tied the game at 7-7 with her own kill, but Snow put Oral Roberts right back ahead. After the changeover, Mikos tied the game at 8-8 with a kill, and Valpo took a 9-8 lead on a block from Mikos and Cyndi Norman (Minooka, Ill./Minooka H.S.). Two Golden Eagle hitting errors pushed that lead to 11-8. Zuzic landed a crosscourt kill to close the deficit to 12-10 for Oral Roberts, and Devic and Maura Cicala stuffed Robinson to make the score 12-11. Mikos ended a rally with a kill to make it 13-11, but Zuzic's slam down the line brought the Golden Eagles back to within one at 13-12. Robinson's kill gave Valpo a 14-12 advantage, but Zuzic posted yet another kill to narrow the lead to 14-13. Brunelle hit into a block by Moulton and Heather Hynds (Mundelein, Ill./Mundelein H.S.) to end the contest.
The match had more than its share of statistical highlights. Despite being outmatched in the kills department (Oral Roberts' had 82 - second on the Mid-Con Tourney match list - compared to Valpo's 56), Valpo racked up a Mid-Con Tourney single-match record 20 team blocks; Moulton was a part of 11 of those, which tied a tourney match record. She also added 18 kills for a double-double and hit .342.
Norman, who was named the Mid-Con Tourney MVP, posted her 17th double-double with 49 assists and 10 digs, while adding two aces and four blocks. Mikos had nine kills and nine blocks, Michelle Robinson (Bloomington, Ill./Normal H.S.) collected 14 kills, and Sara Silcox (Michigan City, Ind./Michigan City H.S.) led the Crusaders with 19 digs.
Zuzic dominated offensively in both of her Mid-Con Tourney matches, and collected 26 kills for the second straight contest; her 52 kills in two matches set a Mid-Con Tourney record. She also added 12 digs for a double-double. Dreher finished with a double-double effort of 10 kills and 32 digs; she had 22 of those digs in the final three games. Cicala set a Mid-Con Tourney record with 67 assists and added 15 digs, and Brunelle had 14 of her 15 kills in the final three games.
The Crusaders will find out where they will be headed and when they will play on Sunday evening, November 30 when the NCAA announces the tournament pairings.
Mid-Con Volleyball All-Tournament Team
Becky Dreher, Oral Roberts
Liz Mikos, Valparaiso
Cyndi Norman, Valparaiso (MVP)
Rebekah Pallikan, IUPUI
Michelle Robinson, Valparaiso
Kristy Waltemeyer, UMKC
Ori Zuzic, Oral Roberts
(Tony Hamilton from the Mid-Continent Conference contributed to this story.)