Volleyball falls to Cal Lutheran in regional final

| Senior Editor

First it was No. 5 Christopher Newport University, falling in a surprise five-setter on Saturday afternoon, and then a nighttime flurry, as No. 4 Calvin College and No. 2 Emory University lost in quick succession.

The upsets continued Sunday, as No. 3 Juniata College saw an end to its postseason aspirations, and the 2015 Division III volleyball tournament field was down nearly all of its top contenders.

Having already navigated one tournament test, Washington University proved Sunday night it wasn’t exempt from the top-five carnage: The No. 1 Bears (34-3) lost in the regional final to No. 9 California Lutheran University on the Regals’ home court, 25-20, 17-25, 25-12, 25-21.

The loss provided a bitter end to an otherwise sweet season, in which the Bears defeated eight top-25 opponents and won their first conference title in four years. But the team’s ultimate goal—the program’s NCAA-record 11th national championship—evaporated at the well-worn hands of a stout Cal Lutheran defense.

“You’ve got to play consistent,” head coach Vanessa Walby said after the match. “Volleyball is a game of mistakes, and the teams are the most consistent are the teams that are going to win.”

Entering the tournament, Wash. U. had lost just two games this year and already avenged itself against Emory with a dramatic victory in the conference title game. It wasn’t so lucky in its attempt to make amends for its other loss, a thorough defeat to Cal Lutheran in September.

In that match, Cal Lutheran weathered a dominant second set by the Bears to win in four sets—a pattern the Regals matched on Sunday.

The first three sets of the regional final offered little drama: Cal Lutheran controlled sets one and three from the outset while Wash. U. did the same in the second. The fourth seemed to follow the same pattern at first, as the Bears couldn’t put a dent in the Regals’ three- or four-point cushion—but with Wash. U. just a dozen points from elimination, the team rallied for a chance at life.

The Bears trailed 13-10 before collecting three straight points to tie the score; the teams then traded kills and errors until Wash. U. used another three-point run to take a 19-16 lead.

But the Regals responded. In the span of five points, Cal Lutheran attacked with four kills and an ace to regain the lead, and a Bears service error put a quick end to their chance at another tie. Wash. U. saved one match point but couldn’t hold back the Regals’ attackers any longer: A Cal Lutheran kill clinched the match, and the regional title, for the home team.

Juniors Caroline Dupont and Amanda Palucki starred for the Bears and were selected to the all-regional team for their efforts. On Sunday, Dupont led the Bears with 17 kills on just 30 swings, and Palucki paced the offense with powerful kills from the corner.

But overall, the Bears’ offense didn’t reach its usual heights—the team’s .155 hitting percentage was its lowest of the season. Second lowest was the .163 mark Wash. U. garnered when it played Cal Lutheran in the regular season.

Multiple Bears hitters posted more errors than kills and repeatedly found themselves stunted at the net by the Regals’ flock of fundamentally sound blockers. Five Cal Lutheran players tallied multiple blocks in the match, and overall, the Regals’ 13.5 blocks were the most allowed by the Bears this season. Second most, of course, was the 13 they surrendered to Cal Lutheran in the team’s first meeting this year.

“They did a really excellent job blocking,” Walby said. “We were shut down on our outside, which they have a big block…It was tough for us to use all three of our options.”

While the rest of the tournament field descended into upset-induced chaos, the Bears’ bracket stayed mostly intact. Elsewhere, the highest-ranked team lost in all seven regionals, with the high-profile squads out of Emory, Christopher Newport and No. 10 Hope College all dropping matches to unranked teams.

But for the Bears to have been able to take advantage of the wide-open tournament field, they would first have to get by a formidable slate of opponents, which they received as part of the toughest draw of any regional seed.

Six of the eight teams in Wash. U.’s bracket entered the postseason ranked in the top 14 in the country—no other region had more than two such teams. But the region’s two finalists easily navigated their way through the highly ranked field, and both Wash. U. and Cal Lutheran won their first two matches in straight sets.

Wash. U. made quick work of its first-round opponent, the University of California, Santa Cruz. Dupont smashed 13 kills on 22 swings to headline a dominant offensive performance that left the Banana Slugs’ blockers unable to slow Wash. U.’s offensive rhythm.

The Bears continued that pace the next night against No. 7 Claremont-Mudd-Scripps (CMS) Colleges. In September, Wash. U. needed five tense sets to defeat the Athenas, but on Saturday, the Bears posted a robust 51 kills to just 11 errors, with Palucki’s 13 points leading the way. Wash. U. jumped out to early leads in all three sets and withstood late rallies by CMS to earn the comfortable victory.

But Wash. U.’s offense, so effective in its early-round victories, stalled against Cal Lutheran’s ubiquitous blockers, and the Bears’ tournament dreams did the same on the hardwood court in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Walby didn’t blame the tournament’s selection committee for the team’s loss, though she didn’t seem happy about the difficulty of the draw.

“It doesn’t matter where you are and where you play, and I’m sure the NCAA is thinking the same thing when they put six nationally ranked teams in one region,” she said.

Wash. U.’s four seniors end their careers with a set of lengthy resumes, counting among them two All-American mentions, six all-conference awards, two appearances on the 1,000 career-kill list and one collective conference championship.

But in their four years, the Wash. U. seniors failed to advance to the NCAA tournament’s final weekend, losing in the regional final three times.

For at least another year, the Bears’ collection of volleyball title banners will have to stay numbering 10.

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