November 23, 2012

Volleyball one win away from another Big Sky title after semifinal sweep

By ZACH BOND
UNCBears.com

GREELEY – The Northern Colorado volleyball program looks like it's peaking at just the right time as it barrels through Big Sky Championship play, sweeping their way to the tournament final.

Does that sound familiar? It should, because after the Bears' 3-0 sweep, Friday night, over the Banner Health NCMC Big Sky Championship's top-seeded Portland State Vikings in the tournament semifinals inside Butler-Hancock Sports Pavilion, this Northern Colorado squad is set to play in its second straight Big Sky Championship final.

If things go like they did last season, the Bears will be celebrating another NCAA Tournament appearance in front of a very pleased Butler-Hancock crowd.

With the 25-16, 25-21, 25-17 sweep the Bears (23-10) extended their set-winning streak to 12 as they have swept each of their past four opponents. The Bears have also swept their past four Big Sky Championship matches.

Quite simply, this team continually rises to the occasion when it matters most. That was more than apparent Friday night, as the Bears dismantled a team that, just 13 days ago, beat them in five games on the Bears home court.

Friday's match didn't look anything like the one that took place a little less two weeks ago. This time, the Bears held Portland State to -.010 hitting, the lowest the Bears have held any opponent to this season.

The defense did it through all aspects of the game. They blocked well, finishing with nine blocks on the night; they dug out seemingly every ball, finishing with 59 digs compared to 47 for the Vikings; and they served well, finishing with four aces and consistently serving aggressively to keep the Vikings' offense out of sorts.

"Serving was the key, again, in this match," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Oates said. "I thought we served very tough. I kept telling our servers: 'When you serve tough, you're taking out two of their hitters.' (Portland State) was forced to set their left sides a lot of balls and Merideth (Johnson) just ate up their left sides and that corner ball and they made some errors as well. I thought serving was the key and then we played really feisty defense.

"To hold them to a negative percentage – I thought we played really hard on defense tonight. And that's against a great defensive team. Portland State is known for their defense, so to out-defend a team like that was something special."

One of the key players in Northern Colorado's defensive effort was junior libero Merideth Johnson (Ft. Collins, Colo.).

Johnson finished with 22 digs, the most she's had since posting back-to-back 23-dig efforts in early November against Sacramento State and North Dakota.

Aside from Johnson's effort on the Bears' backline, the other star on Friday for Northern Colorado was sophomore middle blocker Brianna Strong (Mount Vernon, Iowa).

Strong finished with a match-high 10 kills and, in typical fashion, got those 10 kills while also hitting .450.

Already the Big Sky's leader in hitting percentage and the first player in the conference, in more than 20 years, to hit above .400 in Big Sky match, Strong continually fired up the raucous crowd with big kills and huge blocks. She notched four blocks to go along with her 10 kills.

"Bri led us in kills tonight and that's outstanding when Kelley (Arnold), Tambre (Haddock) and Andrea (Spaustat) have been our kills leaders all season," Oates said. "That's our fourth hitter leading the match in a semifinal against the conference champion. It shows how balanced we are and that we can come through at any position."

From the get-go, the Bears looked like they had carried the momentum from the day's earlier sweep over North Dakota in the quarterfinals. Behind the more than 2,100 fans that packed Butler-Hancock, the Bears got off to 15-6 start and never looked back. After leading 12-6, the Northern Colorado advantage never fell below six, again, as the Vikings just couldn't find an answer.

In the second set, things were a little closer as the two teams traded points to a 6-6 tie early. From there, Northern Colorado began asserting their will again though, as they went on a 6-2 spurt to gain a 12-8 advantage after a Portland State attack error. Although the Vikings battled back to cut the deficit to just 15-14, Northern Colorado pushed back with three straight points to take control of the set for good.

In the final set of the match, the score was once again close early, as it was knotted up 4-4. The story played out much the same as the first two sets from there though, as the Bears used an 8-2 run to take a lead they would never relinquish.

The win was as close to a wire-to-wire victory as you can get, with the latest the Vikings led in any set was when they held a 6-5 advantage in the second frame.

After the two wins on Friday, the Bears will finally turn their attention to what has been one of their season-long goals: another Big Sky title and another trip to the NCAA Tournament. In order to get there, they will have to go through the tournament's two-seed, Idaho State.  If the Bears can get the win, they will not only clinch another Big Sky title, but also tie the school's Division-I record for wins set in 2010.

Getting through the Bengals will be no easy task though, as Idaho State beat the Bears both times the two teams met up, including a convincing sweep in Greeley in late October.

The tournament final is set to begin at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

"We are peaking, right now, at the right time," Oates said. "I think we still can get better. I think tomorrow night's match we will need to be even better than we were tonight and that's kind of been a theme of the season, but we are playing very well right now.

"As we were struggling in the middle of the season, I hoped this would be a team that would turn it on at the right time and that's definitely coming true. We knew this is a team that wanted it. We talked about how driven this team was, how motivated, and at times we lost that in the middle of the season. But I think we have it right now, for sure."