FORT COLLINS, Colo. -- Northern Colorado volleyball gave sixth-ranked Washington all it wanted Thursday during the first round of the NCAA Volleyball Championship.
The Bears, who were making their first apperance in the Division I tournament after winning this year's Big Sky Conference tournament, borrowed a little of Colorado State's homecourt advantage at Moby Arena and took the first game off the Huskies before falling a bit short in a 3-1 loss.
Washington (24-5), which only dropped a game against an unranked opponent one other time this season (Washington State in late October) ultimately prevailed, but the Bears (21-12) put up a memorable fight, falling 27-25, 15-25, 22-25, 21-25.
Senior Kenzie Shreeve slammed home 19 kills and scooped eight digs in her final Northern Colorado match, and senior Allison Raguse backed her up with 15 kills, four digs and three assists.
Senior Breanna VanDerMost led the Bears on defense with 13 digs, bringing her career total to 1,517, the seventh highest total in school history.
"These girls are a special group," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson said. "Especially those seniors, and they are really the ones who led us all year and it showed again tonight. Kenzie and Allison played amazing against the No. 6 team in the country, and I thought Bre VanDerMost had a great match defensively. That's a tough team to defend and she was able to come up with some big digs.
"I couldn't be more proud of our girls. They fought hard, they attacked and they did everything we asked of them, and they followed our game plan, which showed in game one. I couldn't ask anymore of this group right now."
The Huskies came into this NCAA field one of the more storied
programs in the country, and they showed why early in this one,
scoring the first five points of game one and prompting a quick
timeout from Benson.
Taylor Smith got the Bears on the board at 5-1, though, and that seemed to break the ice a bit. Northern Colorado quickly got the score back to 6-4.
The Bears then tied it at 13-13 on a Raguse kill, and they took the lead on the next serve on an ace serve from freshman Marissa Hughes and pushed their advantage to 15-13 on a kill right down the line from Shreeve.
This time Washington took a timeout.
"I think we all felt that we were just waiting to get our first
kill, or waiting to get our first good point against them instead
of them giving it to us," Raguse said. "Once that happened, it was,
like, 'Alright, we did it. We can do it again.' I know I felt
better after I got my first kill and I'm sure all the hitters did,
The Huskies emerged from their timeout and jumped back ahead 17-15 before Northern Colorado responded right away with another run to go up 20-18. Another Huskies timeout ensued.
Northern Colorado got its first shot at game point at 24-22 but Washington responded and tied it at 25.
The Bears stayed strong, though, and got their first NCAA postseason game victory since 2002 when Shreeve tipped a ball just out of the reach of a Washington player and then slammed home NC's 27th point on the next serve.
Benson had said all week that playing in this match was just icing on the cake after the Bears achieved their goal of winning a first Big Sky Conference championship for Northern Colorado athletics.
After taking a game off the Huskies, though, she said she had to give herself a little coaching.
"Those thoughts (shocking Washington) were flashing in my mind," she said, "but I told our team that we don't care what the score is. If we're up 24-0 or down 0-24, we're not looking at the scoreboard. We're playing it every point. So, I was giving myself that speech a little bit after game one of, ‘You can't look ahead, or behind. We're moving on to the next point.' If you look at the big picture, you're going to get beat."
Northern Colorado immediately looked out of steam in game two, but the intermission gave the Bears a chance to regroup and come out and finish off their historic 2009 season better than most in attendance probably thought they could have.
The Huskies took large leads in games three, four and five, but each time Northern Colorado responded and proved just how far this program has come in such a short time under Benson.
"I think we sent a statement tonight, and I'm really proud of that," Benson said. "We showed that we belonged in the NCAA Tournament and that the Big Sky is a good conference. We represented well, and, hopefully, this helps our conference in future years to maybe get two teams in, to show that we belong here in the top 64 teams in the country."
And so this is the end for Northern Colorado's seniors. With so much Division II success, the Bears have had some pretty special players come and go over the years, but none of them have seen as much, progressed as much or achieved as much as this year's group of final-year players did.
From Pocatello, Idaho, to eastern China; from 10 matches under .500 in 2007 to a Northern Colorado DI-record 21 victories this season; to barely making the Big Sky tournament in 2006 and 2007 to cruising through this year's postseason event and then taking a game off of one of the very best programs in the country.
It's been a long and successful ride. One that they'll be proud of for the rest of their lives.
"I don't even know if I can put it into words," Shreeve said, fighting back tears in her postgame media session, "just how amazing this senior season was for all of us and to know that we have set that standard for UNC. It's huge for our program and other teams are noticing us now. So, just to know that we left that ... I'm just excited to see where this program is going."