Valparaiso put together one of its most impressive performances of the season Saturday afternoon in the Horizon League Championship semifinals against top-seeded Milwaukee, defeating the host Panthers 3-1 (30-25, 30-17, 22-30, 30-26) to move on to the championship match Sunday at noon against Cleveland State.
“I am so proud of what we did today,” said Crusader head coach Carin Avery. “To beat the top team in the conference, a team which entered the tournament with just two losses on the season and with a 21-match home winning streak, requires playing very good volleyball in every aspect of the game, and that’s what we did tonight.”
The Crusaders received an especially notable effort from senior outside hitter Tiffany Meikle (Cottage Grove, Wis./Monona Grove). Meikle posted season-best totals of 13 kills and 20 digs and hit at a .343 clip for the match. She also put together back-to-back service aces during a key run in the middle of the first game to give Valpo some much-needed momentum.
“Tiffany had a big-time performance for us tonight,” said Avery. “She really stepped up her game and performed exceptionally well in every aspect of the game.”
Offensively, Meikle was one of four Crusaders to finish in double figures in kills. Sophomore Angie Porché (Lynwood, Ill./Thornton Fractional South) led the way with 19 terminations, including each of the match’s last two points. Val Bollenbacher (Bremen, Ind./Bremen) added 17 kills, while Jill Meyer (Crystal Lake, Ill./South) enjoyed one of her best matches of the season, posting 13 kills on .407 hitting. Tara Newton (Indianapolis, Ind./Franklin Central) continued her strong offensive play, putting down eight balls on just 15 swings.
“I’m so proud of Val for being as successful as she has been the past couple weeks playing in a different spot on the floor for us,” said Avery. “Jill had another fantastic night. She’s really stepped up as another threat, making it harder for other teams to focus on just one attacker. Tara did a great job again in the middle, getting some very clutch kills for us.”
Defensively, Brittany Malicoat (Elkhart, Ind./Memorial) was again the story for the Crusaders, posting a match-high 28 digs to become the first Valpo player to ever register 700 digs in a single season. Porché added 14 digs of her own for her 15th double-double of the season. At the net, Katie Layman (LaPorte, Ind./New Prairie) recorded a career-high eight blocks, leading the Crusaders as they tallied a season-best 13 rejections.
“Angie and Brittany put together outstanding matches for us against tonight,” said Avery. “They both came through with a number of key plays, especially in the late stages of the match.”
Milwaukee led early in game one and maintained a lead through the first half of the game, extending the advantage to as many as six points. With the lead at 16-11, Meikle registered a kill and then served five consecutive points, including the aforementioned aces, to give Valpo a 17-16 lead. The teams would trade the lead for a few more points before the Crusaders took control of the game with a 6-1 spurt to earn a 25-21 edge.
Game two was all Valpo. The Crusaders forced Milwaukee to use both its timeouts early, the second one coming at 12-5 Valpo, and kept their foot on the gas pedal, extending the lead to as many as 17 points on their way to the easy victory to go up two games. Valparaiso hit .421 with 19 kills in the set while limiting the Panthers to a .049 clip.
The third game was a polar opposite, as it was Milwaukee which gained a quick 8-2 lead early and easily went on to the victory to send the match to a fourth game. The Crusaders never trailed in the final game, gaining the lead right away and never relinquishing it. Milwaukee cut the lead to one at 15-14, but a 5-2 spurt gave Valpo a 20-16 lead and breathing room it would maintain all the way through the match’s final points.
“I thought our serving and serve reception was a very big factor in our success tonight,” said Avery. “We had stretches of serving where we took Milwaukee out of its game and went on some critical runs. We also really maintained a fantastic tempo on serve receive, which gave us a lot of options to utilize offensively.”
Milwaukee (26-3) was led by 17 kills apiece from Natalie Schmitting, who hit at a .577 clip, and Jamie Gabrielsen. Leanne Felsing added 15 terminations on her way to a triple-double, as she also tallied 29 assists and ten digs.
The Crusaders held a 72-66 edge in kills over the Panthers and also out-dug the hosts, 77-72. Valpo tallied six service aces to Milwaukee’s four, and enjoyed a 13-9 advantage in the blocks category.
“This was a fantastic win for us tonight, but we know we’re not finished yet,” said Avery. “We’re excited to be going into the championship match tomorrow. Cleveland State is on top of its game right now, and we will have to continue to play at this high level to compete with them tomorrow.”
The Valparaiso (21-10) senior class of Sara Hughes (San Antonio, Texas/Perrysburg [Ohio] H.S.), Meikle and Nicole Schulz (Kewaskum, Wis./Kettle Moraine Lutheran) earned its 100th victory over four seasons with the win over the Panthers. The Crusaders will take on the Vikings of Cleveland State tomorrow at noon, the fifth consecutive year that Valpo has reached its league championship match. The winner will receive an automatic berth into the NCAA Tournament.