ST. PAUL — The UW-La Crosse volleyball team was in a familiar gym and a familiar position in its first-round NCAA Division III national tournament match on Thursday.
The Eagles were ahead late in the first set, looking to close it out — an area in which they’ve been simply dominant the past two weeks. But their opponent, The College of Saint Benedict, overcame the deficit and took the game.
After a fiery talk from coach Amber Dunn in between sets, UW-L blasted the Blazers out of the gym, winning 23-25, 25-17, 25-14, 25-13 and advancing to the second round at University of Northwestern-St. Paul.
The Eagles (22-6), seeded fourth, will play No. 1 seed Northwestern-St. Paul (33-6) in the second round at 7 p.m. today.
Despite playing at NW-SP for the second straight year, the Eagles had to burn off some jitters in the opening set. Some uncharacteristically sloppy hitting allowed CSB (19-9) to hang around in the first set. UW-L cleaned things up enough to get a 23-20 lead, but then allowed the Blazers to score the final five points of the set, including two from blocks.
"Overall we just weren't executing," said Dunn, who's in her first year with the Eagles. "What we do well has to click. I think it came down to relaxing a bit, playing in a different gym than we had in two weeks, and knowing St. Ben's was going to be a good team. It's only the best from here on out."
The Eagles made 11 attack errors in the first set and finished with a .150 hitting percentage, but they quickly rebounded in the second. After it was close early, but a small run by UW-L gave it a 14-12 lead and it kept that momentum rolling to a 20-15 advantage.
"At times we were thinking too much big-picture and not point-for-point," Dunn said. "Once we started just playing in the moment, we got going."
Senior outside hitter Stephanie Henk had six of her 15 kills in the second set.
Using a nearly-perfect offense and lights-out defense, the Eagles pulled away quickly in the third set, holding a 17-10 lead that quickly went to 20-11. UW-L hit .368 in the third set with just one error, and then hit .265 in the fourth — a set that the Eagles controlled throughout.
"We got Steph rolling in the second set, and I think all our players would agree it makes the game easier when we do that," Dunn said. "They had a hard time defending her, we just have to have to discipline to get rolling."
Sophomore middle hitter Kathryn Maas led the charge late in the match, tallying six kills in both the third and fourth sets and finishing with 15 to tie Henk for the match high. Henk also had 10 digs, and Johnson ended with 10 kills and 10 digs. Senior middle hitter Jessica Jablonski had eight kills and five block assists, while Maddie Entinger added four kills, eight digs and 51 assists.
The Eagles played Northwestern-St. Paul in early September, and were swept 23-25, 23-25, 21-25. UW-L was without Maas and Johnson in the matchup as they dealt with injuries, and Dunn said the team is playing much better now than it did two months ago.
"They're going to see a different style of volleyball from us," Dunn said.