Volleyball team wins Division III national championship

The Washington University volleyball team won the 2007 NCAA Div. III Championship with a 3-2 (30-25, 23-20, 30-22, 28-30, 15-13) win over the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater in Bloomington, Ill., on Saturday, Nov. 17. The title is the WUSTL volleyball team’s Div. III-leading ninth in school history, and the first since the 2003 season.

Junior Nikki Morrison led the Bears with 455 kills in 2007

Saturday’s title match was WU’s third since winning it all in 2003, but the first time in four years the Bears were able to reach the pinnacle of Division III volleyball. Head coach Rich Luenemann, who won his 900th match as a collegiate head coach earlier in the NCAA Tournament, wins the second NCAA title of his career.

Senior outside hitter Haleigh Spencer and junior setter Audra Janak were named to the NCAA Championship All-Tournament Team. Junior Alli Alberts was named the 2007 NCAA Championship Most Valuable Player.

Washington University ends the year on a six-match winning streak, with its last loss coming to Emory University, 3-2, in the University Athletic Association championship on Nov. 3. The loss to Emory served as a catalyst for the Bears, who win the title as the Midwest Region’s No. 2 seed. More improbable, in the final three rounds of postseason play, WU beat a team it had lost to earlier in the season, including Emory, 3-1, in the quarterfinals on Nov. 8.

“We didn’t hit our peak, until the regional championship game against Carthage,” Spencer said. “Since the loss to Emory two weeks ago we were a completely different team. I don’t know if people know how hard we worked for this all season, we started from scratch. This is everything that we have worked for, for all four years, since day one.”

Game one of the title match ended as a five-point victory for the Bears. After the frame began as a close affair, Washington U. opened up a 15-10 lead, but the advantage would not last for long as Whitewater responded to cut its deficit to just a single point, at 16-15. The Red and Green never relinquished its lead entirely, and the Warhawks remained within arms length until sophomore middle hitter Erin Albers took over down the stretch.

With Washington U. holding a 25-22 lead, Albers tallied a kill which began a stretch in which the Bears jumped ahead 29-23, with three of those points coming off of kills from Albers. She ended the frame with a team-high five kills, also recording a pair of solo blocks. The Bear defense held Whitewater to a .105 hitting percentage in the first game.

Whitewater evened the match at a game apiece with a seven-point win in the second frame. Game two turned when the Warhawks used a 6-0 scoring run to take a 12-7 lead over Washington U., and the Bears never trailed by fewer than two points for the remainder of the contest.

Part of the Bears’ struggles were related to junior right side Nikki Morrison’s inability to get on track early in the match. Morrison did not record her first kill until she cut Whitewater’s game-two lead to 25-20; she had a team-high 19 kills in the Bears’ NCAA Championship semifinal win over Wittenberg University. Alberts was Washington U.’s most efficient scoring threat in game two, tallying six kills.

Senior Haleigh Spencer tallied 19 kills and a career-high 31 digs in the championship match

Spencer powered the Bears to a come-from-behind game-three win. Washington U. trailed Whitewater, 14-10, before beginning a furious comeback. From the point it trailed 14-10, Washington University outscored the Warhawks, 20-8.

The most critical point of the frame came after the Bears tied the score at 18-18. Back-to-back Whitewater attacking errors resulted in a 20-18 WU lead, and then Spencer took over the game. She notched a kill to make the score 21-19, then teamed with senior Ellen Bruegge for a block, before tacking on to more kills to extend the Bears’ lead to 24-20. Spencer tallied four kills in the third frame, as did Morrison and Albers.

Although Washington U. held the momentum entering the fourth game, Whitewater stormed out of the break to quickly take a 4-0 lead, which it extended to 9-3. The Bears never led in game four, but they did come all the way back to tie the frame in the waning moments.

With the Warhawks leading, 21-15, Washington U. went on a 5-1 scoring run to pull within one point. Whitewater eventually took back a 27-24 lead, but a kill from Spencer and a block assist from Bruegge and Janak brought the Bears within one, 27-26. Washington U. did finally tie the match at 28-28 thanks to a Whitewater attack error, but the Warhawks closed out the game with two straight points. Spencer was stellar again in game four, netting six kills.

It was fitting that game five would come down to the final points. Whitewater led early in the frame, 3-1, but the Bears came back to tie the score 3-3 on a block assist from Alberts and Albers. From that point forward neither team gained more than a two-point advantage until Washington U. went on a 4-1 scoring run to reach match point.

Trailing game five, 11-10, kills from Bruegge and Morrison, to go along with two Whitewater attack errors resulted in a 14-11 Washington U. lead. The bears would need all three match points to clinch the title, which it did on a kill from Bruegge, her 11th of the match.

Spencer led all players with 19 kills, also corralling a career-high 31 digs. Albers finished the mach with 16 kills, while Alberts totaled 15. Janak’s 58 assists were one off of her career-best effort.

Washington University had a rough start to the 2007 season, with a 7-4 record and a three-match losing streak after three weeks of play. However, the Bears would lose only one more match all season en route to the national title.

You have to understand how proud I am of this team,” Luenemann said. “This group has worked harder than any team that I have ever coached. We were not a strong team at the beginning of the year, but we came into practice, worked hard at getting better and fought through it. If any team is deserving of winning a National Championship, it is this group.”