Vikings compete in Central Region Tournament

winning-point-against-kearney

Volleyball’s historic season ends in Central Region semifinals

RYAN HEUER

rtheuer12@ole.augie.edu

The casual observer may have thought Augustana volleyball’s season came to an end in the national semifinal rather than the regional semifinal.

The NCAA Tournament begins with eight regional tournaments. The sixth-seeded Vikings competed in the Central Region Tournament last weekend, topping three seed Nebraska-Kearney in the first round before falling to No. 2 Southwest Minnesota State University in the semis.

Ideally, the eight best teams in Division II remain after each region crowns its champion, though that’s not the case in volleyball—the eight-team Central Region field featured seven teams ranked in the top-eight of Division II. UNK was ranked second in the nation, SMSU, third.

“It’s crazy,” head coach Dan Meske said. “But we know the hand we were dealt. You have to beat the best teams to get to the Elite Eight. We plan to train, set goals and accomplish [that] in the coming years.”

The win over Kearney on Dec. 1 gave the Lopers just their second loss of the season. SMSU then topped Augustana a day later, but it needed a big comeback to do so.

The Vikings took a 2-1 set lead after a dominating third set in which they led 20-9 at one point. That’s where the good news ended for Augustana, though, as SMSU outscored the Vikings 40-26 in the final two sets to take a five-set victory. Meske said he didn’t feel like his team fell apart, but rather that SMSU simply showed why it is one of the nation’s best teams.

“Southwest is a great team,” he said. “I think they honestly have two of the most physically gifted athletes maybe to ever play Division II volleyball. … We just tried to continue to play our game. More than anything, I think they just kind of woke up and really upped their game.”

brittany-chechSenior outside hitter Brittany Cech thought the problems mounted in the fourth set.

“Volleyball is all about momentum shifts and runs,” Cech said. “We gave up way too many runs in that fourth set. We didn’t play our best, and in our conference you really can’t afford to take points off.”

All of this came after the Vikings weren’t sure they’d even make the regional because of the tournament’s format and their first-round exit in the conference tournament, but the NSIC earned an unprecedented six bids into the regional.

Meske said the team felt vindicated by the win over Nebraska-Kearney, which entered the match 35-1.

“I think there were a lot of teams probably chirping in the [Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association] that they should’ve been in, and they probably had a great point,” Meske said. “There are so many ways to break down who deserves to be in the NCAA Tournament, and once you actually play the games, that’s the most important thing. I think we maybe had a little bit of swagger about us that we knew we deserved to be there.”

Concordia University swept SMSU in the championship and is now the heavy favorite for the national championship.

Augustana is left to wonder about what could have been had it found its way into the Elite Eight, which features two unranked teams and second-seeded Palm Beach Atlantic, whom Augustana beat convincingly Sept. 2.

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Cech said. “We proved we could beat the best teams in the nation all season long. … Unfortunately we won’t get the opportunity, but we were lucky enough to play against the best competition in the country all season long.”

The Vikings now turn their attention to next season, armed with several key returners and a winner’s mentality.

“This team is hungry to get back to work,” sophomore outside hitter Courtney Place said. “I think we saw a glimpse of what we could have achieved, and that hurts a little right now, but all of us are ready to improve as a team so we can get back out there next year and finish what we’ve been dreaming about.”

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