Valparaiso’s bid for the Horizon League championship in its first season of league play came up one match short, as the Crusaders fell to the second-seeded Vikings of Cleveland State, 3-1 (30-27, 28-30, 30-27, 30-23), Sunday afternoon in the championship match in Milwaukee, Wis.
"Although I am disappointed in the outcome of the match, I am so proud of the team for getting to this point in the season," head coach Carin Avery said. "It is a remarkable accomplishment after losing two starters in September and still beating the number one see to get to the championship match."
Valpo jumped out to an early 10-5 lead in the opener, but the Vikings answered with a big run of their own, scoring 11 of the next 13 points and forcing Avery to use both her timeouts. The Crusaders fought back to within 21-20, but five straight points for CSU seemed to seal the fate of the game. Valpo wasn’t done yet, however, as seven of the next nine points went the Crusaders’ way, including four kills by Katie Layman (LaPorte, Ind./New Prairie), to bring the deficit down to 28-27. Valpo committed errors on each of the game’s last two points to give the Vikings the opener.
The Vikings earned the early lead in game two, taking a 7-3 edge, but a 7-2 spurt from the Crusaders gave them the lead once again. The teams traded the next few points before Valpo put together another 8-2 run to gain some separation with a 19-14 lead. The Crusaders maintained the buffer for the remainder of the game, and had five game points at 29-24. Valpo would need every one of them, as Cleveland State rattled off four straight points before Tara Newton (Indianapolis, Ind./Franklin Central) gave the Crusaders the game with her sixth kill of the set.
Cleveland State looked to have game three well in hand, leading by as many as seven points at 19-12. Valpo used two kills from Val Bollenbacher (Bremen, Ind./Bremen) to spark a 7-1 run to jump right back into the contest at 20-19, and the game would remain close for the duration, with the lead fluctuating between one and four points. Sara Hughes (San Antonio, Texas/Perrysburg [Ohio] H.S.) registered a service ace to cut the lead back down to one at 25-24, but Cleveland State scored the next two points and the teams would just trade sideouts for the rest of the game, giving the Vikings the 2-1 lead.
Game four was tight for the first half, as Cleveland State held the lead for most of the opening portions, but never opened up more than a three-point gap. With the game still close at 19-18, the Vikings put together a key 5-0 run to take a 24-18 lead and would extend the edge to as many as eight points at 28-20. Back-to-back kills from Angie Porché (Lynwood, Ill./Thornton Fractional South) brought Valpo back to within six points, but that would be as close as the Crusaders would get, as Cleveland State closed out the match and earned the Horizon League’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
“Maybe I should be excited that we put ourselves in this position, but I’m not happy with the way we lost,” said Avery. “We were very inconsistent on the floor today, much like the way we played during October, and we made errors at critical junctures of the match. We set ourselves up to be in the championship match with two well-played matches, but second place isn’t what we’re here for. Valpo volleyball is about winning championships, and we just didn’t play well enough to do that today.”
Bollenbacher and Porché each earned All-Tournament honors and were joined on the team by Brittany Malicoat (Elkhart, Ind./Memorial) as well. Bollenbacher led the Crusaders on Sunday with 18 kills, and finished the tournament with 46 kills over the three matches. Porché picked up 16 kills and 11 digs against the Vikings, giving her 55 kills and 40 digs on the weekend. Malicoat registered 13 digs versus Cleveland State and finished the tournament with 64 digs.
Layman had a good match in the middle for the Crusaders, registering a career-best 10 kills on .529 hitting while also posting a team-best four blocks. Hughes dished out 33 assists for Valpo, while Tiffany Meikle (Cottage Grove, Wis./Monona Grove) paced the Crusaders with 19 digs and three service aces.
Cleveland State (23-8) was led by 17 kills on .378 hitting from Beth Greulich, one of four Vikings to finish with at least 10 kills. Amy Benz tallied a match-best nine blocks to go along with her ten terminations.
The Vikings enjoyed slight advantages over the Crusaders in both kills (68-65) and digs (67-66), but outhit Valpo by a significant .238-.176 margin. Cleveland State also tallied 15 total blocks, while the Crusaders were only able to post six rejections.
“We will miss our seniors (Hughes, Meikle and Nicole Schulz) next year,” said Avery. “They have meant so much to this program, giving 100% to Valpo volleyball every day for the last four years. Every practice and every match, they always showed up ready to play and to lead this team. I hope our returning players learned a lot from the three seniors in their time together.”
(21-11) will conclude its season next Saturday, November 24, when the Crusaders travel to Fort Wayne to take on IPFW. First serve is slated for 6 p.m. CST.