The UW-La Crosse volleyball team had to feel like a demolition crew, jackhammering away at an impenetrable wall that seemed to grow taller as the match wore on.
And that Viterbo University-built wall, erected within seconds along the net, never crumbled.
Sure it showed cracks a time or two, but the V-Hawks’ powerful blockers were too good, too strong and too persistent Thursday night at a steamy Mitchell Hall. The end result was a 25-20, 26-24, 25-18 Viterbo victory before 485 fans in the annual cross-town rivalry, leaving the Coulee Cup with the V-Hawks (13-3) for the 10th consecutive year.
“We want to compete and we want to really represent volleyball the way it should be, with UW-L and Viterbo both playing well,” Viterbo coach Ryan DeLong said.
“And now we secure it (trophy) for another year and that makes our seniors happy. Now we go out and do our own thing and we are going to be UW-L’s fans and I think they are going be our biggest fans as we go down the road.”
It took Viterbo, which has won five straight matches and is ranked No. 5 in the NAIA, a bit to hit on all cylinders as it trailed 8-3 in each of the first two sets, but once 6-foot-4 Lydia Xu, 6-3 Aubrey Aspen, 6-2 Miah Garant, 6-foot Katie Frohmader and 6-0 Maya Roberts got rolling, UW-L simply couldn’t find anywhere to send its spikes.
“Honestly I feel like in the beginning there wasn’t a sense of urgency within us. UW-L was out here, and they were gaming and they were ready to play right from the get-go,” said Aspen, who shared team-high honors for kills with Siera Skow with eight apiece.
“With us, it took a second and once we were able to flip that switch, and really get into the groove of things and just decide that, ‘You know what? This is an important game for us, too.’ This is our cross-town rival. This is the big deal for us in town and all these young girls are here to watch us and watch up play our guts out.”
UW-L (6-3), a quick and athletic team that was able to dig spike after spike out in the early going of each set, used its defensive prowess, plus the hitting of senior Marisa Johnson (match-best 12 kills) and freshman Emma Lawrence, to build early momentum.
Viterbo, however, would use its height to block its way back into each of the first two sets, then wear down the Eagles. Four unanswered points in the first set brought the V-Hawks to within 8-7, and a 5-0 run erased a two-point deficit and put Viterbo on top 20-17 in the opening set. The V-Hawks took five of the next seven points en route to a 25-20 win.
It was a pattern that DeLong has seen from his team early in the season as it continues to learn each player’s strengths and weaknesses.
That pattern continued in the second set as the Eagles, coached by former Viterbo player Amber Dunn, rattled off six consecutive points to take a 11-3 lead. Viterbo, with Siera Skow having a big set, tied the match at 14, then forged ahead 22-18. UW-L, however, would battle back as Abbey Fox got the Eagles’ offense rolling.
UW-L, in fact, rallied from a 24-19 deficit to know the second set at 24.
Viterbo regrouped, then used a well-timed tip by Roberts and a kill by Skow to win the second set 26-24.
“I think our intensity stayed the same all the way through, I just think Vitebo came back with some good plays and we just didn’t get it done,” Johnson said. “They are some very tall people, we just have to find a way to work ourselves over the block and everything like that.
“I think that (close second-set loss) just geared us up even more to into the third set.”
Viterbo never skipped a beat in the third set, building 8-1 and 10-3 leads before the Eagles rallied to within 12-10. With Xu (7 kills), Skow (6) and Roberts (6) smashing spikes at different angles, UW-L got no closer.