I can tell I'm a championship rookie by the pure joy I get when I arrive. I am definitely starting to understand the excitement that surrounds these times of year. That's exactly how I'd describe the atmosphere inside Woodling Gymnasium tonight, as the Horizon League Volleyball Championship got underway. All of the teams there knew that their job was to win, and none of them were concerned whether their seed had anything to do with it.
The first match Friday night put the #3-seed Milwaukee up against the #6-seed Green Bay. Knowing what I know now, the seed didn't matter.
Milwaukee won both regular season match-ups and came into the tournament on an eight match winning streak, so it seemed fitting that they eventually took control of the first set and ran with it. The Phoenix came out for revenge in the second set. Holly Visser was named to the All-League team last week, and she proved why tonight. With 21 kills in the match, she put on a great performance.
Back to the action, Green Bay started dominating. For a team that barely slid into the tournament, they acted like a top-seeded team for a few sets. Milwaukee's coach Susie Johnson agreed.
Milwaukee's Lauren Felsing really performed well, and took her role as Defensive Player of the Year pretty seriously. I expected her to be good. But she was better than good. Every time I took my eye off of her, I'd turn back to find her somewhere totally different. She was all over the court, and her 26 digs in the match put her right on par with her season average of just under five per set. But even she wasn't ready for what Green Bay brought in the second and third sets.
Luckily for the Panthers, they found their game again in the fourth set. Unfortunately for them, the Phoenix didn't lose theirs. This was the best volleyball I saw all night. The set went back and forth, and both teams were equally dominant at different points in the set. Even the score said so, when they were tied up at 25. Milwaukee pulled out the fourth set and completed their comeback with a fifth set victory. Now they're prepping to play the #2-seed, Valparaiso.
In tournament time, coach Johnson understands the added pressures, but she hopes that the Panthers' flashbacks to earlier in the season have gone away for good.
The second match up of the evening pitted fourth-seeded Butler against fifth-seeded UIC. This match-up proved my point for the second time in the evening. The seed didn't matter. Safe to say, both teams showed up to play.
Early in the first set, the Flames looked like they were ready take control with confidence and enthusiasm. Unfortunately for them, the Bulldogs wouldn't oblige and took over the first set.
Butler was down a powerhouse player. Well, not down, because she was there, but Porshia Allen wasn't playing her game. With an injured left ankle, Allen was clearly in pain throughout the sets. She left the game in the third set, but she didn't leave for long. I did get to see a few of the famous Porshia Allen kills, but they weren't nearly as plentiful as usual. Flames coach Katie Schumacher-Cawley knew that they should expect this from a four-time All-League performer.
UIC got back to their game in the second and third sets. They knew what they had to do to keep their game up. Casie Sullivan can explain it better than I can.
After the back to back success, the Flames and Bulldogs both headed into the fourth set looking to take control. As the score literally volleyed back and forth, both teams saw their key players taking control. Butler's Jessica Wolfe finally showed herself at that point and came through with several big kills to carry the Bulldogs for a few points. UIC's Sullivan kept her side of the floor in it for the majority of the set. After a tough "touch" call on Sullivan, a few easy balls fell in and the Flames dropped a few points. Neither team pulled ahead by very many before the other team was back on their heels. This fourth set started to look a lot like the fourth set I watched earlier in the night between Milwaukee and Green Bay. It was 25-all. Then 26-all. UIC scored the next two points for a 28-26 win. Coach Schumacher was proud of the performance by her team, especially in the end when the Flames faced six set points from the Bulldogs.
The Flames will play against the host, Cleveland State, tomorrow in the semifinals. In their most recent match-up, the Flames tasted victory over the Vikings in five sets. Not surprisingly, seed or rank didn't matter then.
Seeds and rankings didn't have much influence tonight. We'll have to see if that changes tomorrow afternoon in the semifinals, but I wouldn't count on it.