The Leopards won the first game of the NCAA tournament against Otterbein, 3-1, Thursday morning as they received a bid to the tournament after the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference playoffs.
In the SCIAC playoffs, they defeated Pomona-Pitzer in the SCIAC semifinals, 3-1, in a tightly contested match on Nov. 9 and then came up short in the SCIAC finals against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps on Saturday night, 3-0.
The Leopards finished the regular season 22-3, with two of those losses coming in the hands of Pomona-Pitzer and it was a team effort to break through and beat them in the playoffs.
“We’re not going to go where we want to go if it’s a one-person show,” head coach Jeff Hendershot said. “So setters doing the set distribution, all of our hitters getting involved and doing their jobs, that’s why we were successful tonight.”
Sophomore outside hitter and right side hitter Mya Ray opened the scoring with a kill and the Leopards started the game getting to a 3-1 lead. The Sagehens battled back and took a 4-3 lead only to give up seven straight points to the Leopards. On this seven point stretch, Ray had two service aces and one kill.
The Sagehens then rattled off five points of their own to bring the score within one at a 10-9 Leopards’ lead. From there, it was a much more even affair with both teams trading points to keep the score close.
Finding themselves down 23-22, the Leopards scored three straight points to win set one, 25-23. The Sagehens committed a service error and an attack error, then senior outside hitter Noelani Soma got the kill to end the set.
Set two started similarly to the first set, with the Leopards taking an early 4-1 lead thanks to a pair of attack errors by Pomona-Pitzer and a service ace and kill by freshman outside hitter Lauren Gott. The Sagehens clawed their way back to 7-7, then the Leopards jumped to a 13-9 lead.
After five unanswered points, the Sagehens took a 14-13 lead. The lead was short-lived because the Leopards took control of the set from this point on and had a stretch where they scored eight out of nine points to take a commanding 24-17 lead.
The Sagehens got a point back but then Gott ended the set with a kill and the Leopards took a 2-0 set lead.
The Sagehens flipped the script in the third set, jumping out to a 5-1, then an 8-3 lead, only to have the Leopards score five unanswered points to tie it at 8-8. Both teams went back-and-forth scoring points to keep things close, but the Sagehens eventually pulled away with a 22-16 lead.
The Leopards took a timeout, and it proved to be effective because they scored six straight points to tie the game 22-22 thanks to three attack errors by the Sagehens, two kills by graduate student Ayana Mier and a service ace by junior libero Madison Smith.
“We had such a balanced offense today I think that’s what really helped us beat them,” Mier said.
Despite coming all the way back to tie it, the Leopards dropped the set 25-23, bringing the score to 2-1 Leopards.
The fourth and final set was a thriller that featured seven lead changes and the largest lead was just four points. After being down 5-3, the Sagehens rattled off four straight points to take a 7-5 lead and kept the lead until the Leopards went on a run where they scored five out of six points and took a 12-11 lead, with three of those points being kills by Gott.
The Sagehens then took control and got to a 20-16 lead, then a 24-22 lead. The Leopards were one point away from giving up a 2-0 set lead to force a fifth set.
Staring down a 24-22 deficit, Soma and Ray got kills, Gott served an ace and then Ray and freshman middle blocker Zacky Coaston teamed up for a huge block to seal the deal 26-24.
“Every single person on this team is important, every single person on the sideline, we have such a good team culture and I think that plays such a big part in our success,” Gott said.
The Leopards beat the Sagehens 3-1 to advance to the SCIAC Finals against the No. 8 nationally ranked Claremont-Mudd-Scripps. The Leopards lost to Claremont 3-0 in the SCIAC Finals on Saturday night.
“We’ll just go back to the basics and we’re just going to go into practice tomorrow with an open mind and ready to keep working so we can keep going further,” Ray said.
On Monday, the Leopards earned an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They are in Oshkosh, Wis. this weekend and they opened the tournament with a 3-1 win against Otterbein on Thursday. The Leopards will take on East Texas Baptist at 2:30 p.m. Friday in round two.
A few Leopards players also received national recognition. Freshman setter Malia Capistrano was named American Volleyball Coaches Association Region 10 Freshman of the Year, First Team All-Region and First Team All-SCIAC. Ray was named First Team All-Region, SCIAC Offensive Athlete of the Year and First Team All-SCIAC. Gott received First Team All-SCIAC and Region 10 Honorable Mention honors. Lastly, Mier earned Second Team All-SCIAC honors.
To cap it off, the Leopards coaching staff was tabbed SCIAC Coaching Staff of the Year.
Jack Janes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.