Illinois Central wins NJCAA DII Championship
WISCONSIN DELLS, Wis - In 24 tries since 1976, the Illinois Central College volleyball team left nationals disheartened. But Saturday night, under the dome of Wisconsin Dells Center, ICC scored a win that erased a quarter-century's worth of disappointment.
ICC won the NJCAA Division II national championship with a thrilling 25-21, 25-19, 23-25, 22-25, 15-7 victory over Cowley (Kan.) College.
"Going five sets with a competitive team, maybe it makes it even sweeter," ICC coach Sue Sinclair said. "Patience and persistence were part of our model all year and we had both tonight. It was a really good match."
After a fourth-place finish a year ago, ICC (33-7) set out from Day 1 this season to bring home the ultimate prize.
"It all finally paid off," said ICC's Katie Thomason, who finished with 15 kills and 16 digs. "Our quote for nationals was, ‘Be Inspired,' and we truly were."
Cowley (32-5) fought back from a two-set hole to force a tiebreaker, but its players were reduced to tears as they walked off the court.
"I'm just so proud of my team," Cowley coach Jenifer Bahner said. "Being down two sets to a great team like ICC, it's tough, and I'm so proud of them for not giving up."
A point off the serve of Yiting Cao gave ICC an 18-12 lead in the first set. Cowley cut ICC's lead to three on three separate occasions, but Tessa Barra had two kills down the stretch to help secure the four-point win.
Barra, Cao, Thomason, Leah Shaw and Kelsy Heiser all had big kills as ICC took a 19-10 advantage in the second set. Cowley trimmed its deficit to 22-18, but ICC finished with a 3-1 spurt capped with a kill by Shaw for the win.
"We executed very well in the first two sets," Sinclair said.
With Cowley's back against the wall, Bahner pulled her team together.
"I guess the biggest thing I said was, ‘How do we want to be remembered,' " Bahner said. "We knew we had to have pride, and that's what it's all about. We just had to do it on the court."
Cowley led 14-12 in the third set, but ICC answered with a 7-1 rally to take a three-point edge. A kill by Elena Berroteran broke the ninth tie of the set for a 23-22 lead, and Cowley took the next point as well to stay alive.
ICC jumped out to a 5-1 lead in the fourth set, but back-to-back kills by Berroteran later put Cowley up 10-8. ICC tied it at 19, but Cowley finished off the set to push it to the all-important fifth.
Cao had four kills and an ace as ICC took a 10-4 lead in the final set. With ICC up 13-7, Ashley Meyrick had two straight blocks at the net to end the match and kick off a long-awaited celebration.
"I don't know how to explain what I felt," Meyrick said of her reaction following the title-clincher. "It was so surreal and blissful."
Cao finished with 23 kills, 15 digs and four aces and was named the tournament's most valuable player.
"She wants things more for the team than herself," Sinclair said of Cao, who will next play at Utah. "She's very humble and wanted that big team trophy so much for everybody."
Thomason and Shaw joined Cao on the all-tournament team.
While it was a dream come true for the ICC players, it also was for Sinclair, who ended her 20th anniversary season in style.
"To be able to bring it home for the administration and our alumni, it's a big part of why I work at ICC," said Sinclair, whose parents made the trip from Missouri to see the finale. "It's awesome to be a part of this."
courtesy Brent Glasgow, Peoria Journal Star