The way volleyball works, there are very little breaks come tournament time. The opening weekend consists of three rounds, played on consecutive days, in which eight teams arrive to a regional destination but only one makes it out alive.
Making it out of the first weekend is a draining endeavor. Coaches must prepare for three different opponents in three days, with less than 24 hours in between each match and each opponent tougher than the last. Players must perform at their peak on short rest, staying mentally sharp during the biggest weekend of their volleyball careers.
Ohio Northern, ranked 20th in the country and in the midst of their deepest tournament run since 2009, found themselves deep in the woods with third-ranked Wittenberg on Sunday afternoon. Those were the only two teams left at Otterbein’s Rike Center after a grueling weekend, and the Polar Bears had a 24-23 lead over the Tigers in the first set.
Northern was one point away from taking it.
“I thought that everything was dictated on the first set for us,” ONU head coach Kate Witte, in her 21st NCAA Tournament and seventh regional final, said in the postgame press conference. “I thought it was evenly matched in the beginning.”
Wittenberg came back with two straight points, a kill by sophomore Aubrey Cox and a service ace by junior Megan Flaherty, to take a 25-24 lead. After a set-saving kill by ONU sophomore outside hitter McKenna Jordan tied it at 25, Wittenberg rattled off two straight points to win the set.
For a young team like Ohio Northern — where seven of the team’s nine regular rotation players were freshmen or sophomores — Witte believes that the emotional letdown of losing an intense first set led to the team’s eventual loss of the match.
“Once [Wittenberg] won the first set, they dictated the rest of the way. I thought we played very young at times today,” Witte said. “We knew the first set was pivotal for our team to gain some confidence. And we came up short, and a mature team grows from it and goes, ‘OK, it’s not over, we just lost one, let’s start over again.’ And we didn’t do that today.”
ONU would lose the second set by a much wider margin, 25-14, and the third set by a score of 25-10. Wittenberg won 3-0, advancing to the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals for the second time in three years.
Ohio Northern was sent home with a 29-6 record, having advanced to the regional final for the first time in eight years. They beat DePauw in a nail-biting five-set match on Friday night in the first round of the tournament, after going up 2-0 but letting the Tigers crawl back. On Saturday, ONU knocked off OAC co-champion Otterbein on their home floor in an impressive 3-0 sweep, the first time in three tries that Northern had beaten the Cardinals this season.
But on Sunday, after a deflating first set, the wheels fell off against Wittenberg, who had also beaten the Polar Bears 3-1 earlier this season. Ohio Northern tallied just a .074 hitting percentage on the match after hitting .238 during the first set. They had 20 errors to Wittenberg’s 14 and consistently found themselves down six to eight points throughout the second and third sets.
“Most of the points that we scored in the second set were [because] we had a service error or they hit out,” Witte said. “I mean, with what they hit and what we hit, and we had that many receiving errors… you’re not ever going to compete.”
Sophomore defensive specialist McKenna Hostetler noted that the team “knew that it wasn’t going to be easy” facing a Wittenberg team with only two losses all year, but that they “just couldn’t get them out of system” in the second and third sets.
Wittenberg hit .288 on the match while hitting .353 and .381 in the second and third sets, respectively.
“We had a couple of moments where our servers got hot enough to give us a cushion,” Wittenberg head coach Paco Labrador, in his 11th regional final, said after the match. “And when you have a six or seven-point cushion, it really does free everybody up a little bit and we played a little more loose. And then our back line was able to keep us from getting out of pattern and getting out of our rotations. We didn’t give up a lot of long streaks, which helped a lot, too.”
Despite Northern’s accomplishments this season and the fact that the program appears to be making its way back to national championship competitiveness after a brief hiatus, Witte was disappointed in Sunday’s finish. In between praise of Wittenberg and some of her own players in the postgame press conference, Witte always came back to how the team struggled to move on from that first set. It lingered with her in the moments after the crushing defeat, just as the first set lingered with her team a little too long on Sunday.
“I mean, am I proud of our successes? Absolutely. If you would’ve told me before the season that this young team would’ve been 29-6 and we would’ve been in a regional final, I would be like, ‘Wow, that would be an amazing, successful season,’” Witte said. “So, [I’m] pleased with the overall season, not the end result.”
The next step for this team, Witte said, is being able to adapt to a tough first-set loss like they endured on Sunday. After a weekend of repeatedly responding to adversity, Northern needed to find a way to get back up one more time.
“You have to mature as a player to know that, ‘We’re OK, we’re not going to give up, we’re going to continue to get better.’ And you have to peak at the right time, and I think at the end of the year we did a better job of playing more consistently,” Witte said. “You know, emotion is great when you play well. But you have to have the emotion and the consistency when you’re struggling, and finding ways to gut out opponents, and today we didn’t do that.”
The Polar Bears will lose three seniors to graduation heading into next season, including two All-Americans in outside hitter Haley Potters and libero Megan Nieszala. They will return their young nucleus, however, including OAC and Great Lakes Region Freshman of the Year Katie Wade at setter and first-team All-OAC sophomore spikers Chelsea Huppert and McKenna Jordan.
Huppert and Jordan were both named to the Westerville Regional All-Tournament Team this weekend, as Jordan led the team with 43 kills over three matches while Huppert tallied 37.
If there were high expectations for this season, those will be doubled next fall. While ONU had the core of their team back this year from last season’s NCAA Tournament team, where the Polar Bears made it back to the big dance for the first time since 2012, there were still questions: Could they replace All-American Ashley Borchers at setter? How far could this team, made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores, go?
They found their answers in Wade, who finished the season fifth in the nation in total assists, and a team that made it back to the regional finals for the first time in nine years. They finished the season ranked 20th in the country, and will likely be ranked higher in next summer’s preseason poll.
Next year’s team will try to make it to the tournament’s final weekend, the round of eight, for the first time since assistant coach Katie (Weininger) Kuhn led them there in 2008.
“Getting to regional finals gave us a little taste of what it is like to be there, and I know we all want more than to just get to the game,” Hostetler, who finished the season second on the team in digs behind Nieszala, said. “It is great motivation for the offseason to work really hard so we can get back next year, but have the result we want.”