Winona tops AU in NSIC Tourney
The No. 7 Augustana volleyball team overcame several hurdles as it vaulted to the top-tier of the best conference in Division II. Augustana learned how to win five-set matches, win on the road and beat the nation’s best teams.
There was just one last obstacle that the Vikings couldn’t crack. Augustana (26-5) could never beat Winona State. For a third time this season, the two schools squared off, this time in the first round of the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference Tournament Wednesday night at the Elmen Center. The No. 6 Warriors (26-4) again walked away the victors, 20-25, 34-32, 25-19, 25-23.
“Winona was kind of like us,” Vikings head coach Dan Meske said. “Unranked at the beginning of the year, trying to find your identity. … The interesting thing about Winona is we’ve picked off some top teams, but Winona’s only big wins are against us.”
Winona entered its first match ranked No. 21, but the point stands. The Warriors are 3-4 against top-10 teams this season, with two of those wins coming against Augustana and one against No. 9 Wayne State, which at the time was reeling.
“We knew it was going to be a battle, knowing the battles we’ve had [this season] with them,” Winona head coach Joe Getzin said postgame. “Coming in on [Augustana’s] home court, being able to do what we did, really is a statement for the girls.”
Augustana now awaits its fate as it hopes to secure one of the Central Region’s five at-large bids. Eight teams from each region make the regional, with three conference tournament champions receiving an automatic bid.
Wayne State, which was ranked just behind Augustana in the region, beat No. 2 Minnesota-Duluth Wednesday, which athletic communications assistant Kelly Shipp said might hurt the Vikings’ chances to receive a bid.
Shipp said it’ll likely come down to whether or not the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association receives an at-large bid in addition to its automatic berth. That seems likely, and it would leave only five spots for the NSIC, with the fifth being between Wayne and Augustana.
The Vikings learn their fate Monday.
Augustana looked strong out of the gate Wednesday, leading the first set almost the entire way. It looked to be in complete control of the match midway through the second set with a 13-9 lead, but that’s when things began to fall apart.
Winona went on a 5-1 run to tie the set, then battled to a 22-19 lead. But the Vikings stormed back to take a 24-23 lead, which would prove to be the first of four set points they had in the set. With a chance to take a commanding two-set advantage, Augustana couldn’t close out the Warriors, appearing to beat itself with two service errors in overtime.
“Fundamentals broke down a little bit, and we didn’t execute,” Meske said. “That was pretty evident. We had opportunities to close those sets … but I take that burden as a coach. I have to train us better and get us to execute in those moments.”
Meske also took blame for one of the service errors, saying he put freshman outside hitter Sophia Terwilleger in a tough spot, forcing her to make her first set of the match up 29-28 because he ran out of substitutes.
The Vikings never looked quite right in the third set. They got up 9-5 in Set 4, but again let Winona claw back into it with an 12-4 run. Augustana then appeared on the verge of stealing the set when a 7-1 run gave it a 23-21 lead, but Winona scored the final four points to take the match.
“That’s something we’ve talked about all year,” Getzin said of surviving on the brink of a set loss. “That’s our identity. We showed a little bit of who we are tonight.”
Sophomore outside hitter Lauren Waite led Augustana offensively with a career-high 20 kills, while senior outside hitter Brittany Cech had 12 kills and 10 digs.
Meske said he truly doesn’t know what will happen in regard to a playoff berth.
“We know we deserve to be in the NCAA Tournament,” Meske said. “We know we’re capable of winning the national championship. But that’s not the hand that we’ve been dealt. The hand that we’ve been dealt is that we are in the hardest region to get in and that we expect nothing. This was a match we had to win to keep our destiny in our own hands.
“If this was the last time we play together, we’re so proud of our effort. We were talking about celebrating this team. … We’ve done all these things that they should be so proud of.”