GVSU advances to Elite Eight, gets revenge
Louisville-bound Lakers sweep their way to regional title
Kaitlyn Wolters lasered a two-handed shot over the net, to the weak-side corner and just inside the line. In one set-winning play, Wolters and her Grand Valley State teammates seemed to send a message to their rivals on the other side: not this year.
The momentum-shifting moment in the second set against Ferris State proved to be the decisive one for GVSU in the NCAA Midwest Region Tournament at Fieldhouse Arena over the weekend, when the Lakers emphatically punched their ticket to the Elite Eight by sweeping Missouri S&T, FSU and Rockhurst. The Elite Eight appearance is the first for coach Deanne Scanlon's program since 2010.
“I can’t even put it into words right now,” Scanlon said after beating Rockhurst in the championship match. “I’m just happy for this group of kids. That’s the emotion that’s overwhelming right now. A year ago, the agony that we felt, it’s weighed really heavy on these kids.”
In 2013, the Lakers led 2-0 in the championship match against FSU in Allendale, but the Bulldogs stormed back to win in five sets. The rally simultaneously ended GVSU’s season and 21-game win streak, which was one short of tying the school record.
FSU celebrated another postseason win at Fieldhouse Arena on Nov. 16 by handing GVSU a four-set loss in the 2014 GLIAC Tournament championship match. FSU earned the No. 2 seed in the regional as a result, although No. 3 GVSU was selected to host.
Five days and a first-round sweep of Lewis later, the Bulldogs had a chance to end GVSU’s season at Fieldhouse Arena for the second time in as many years. Scanlon’s Lakers, who outlasted Missouri S&T (25-22, 25-22, 25-17) in the first round on Thursday, had other plans, however.
“Things happen for a reason,” Scanlon said. “It’s a long time to wait for things to come full circle.”
Laker fans and student athletes filled Fieldhouse Arena on Friday night for the second-round matchup. GVSU fed off the energy early on as the team battled to a 25-22 victory in the first set.
With seven tie scores and five lead changes, the second set was a wild one.
FSU was seemingly unfazed after the loss in set one. The Bulldogs staged an all-too-familiar rally to quickly turn an 11-11 tie into a 19-12 advantage -- but GVSU was ready for it this year.
“Our energy level really helped us,” Wolters said. “In our pregame meeting we said we need to battle, have fun and get together. We knew they were going to put up a fight.”
A desperate defense and an unpredictable attack allowed the Lakers to stage a comeback of their own. GVSU junior Kaleigh Lound took over inside, and the team began to attack from all angles. The seniors on the floor -- Wolters, Abby Aiken, Christina Canepa, Ally Simmons and Kourtney Wolters -- spearheaded the surge, and a kill from junior Betsy Ronda trimmed the FSU lead to one (24-23).
Lound put down a kill from Kaitlyn Wolters on the next play, and followed it up by blocking an attack from FSU standout Caroline Heitzman to make it 25-24. Wolters added the exclamation point one play later, giving GVSU a 2-0 lead and enough momentum to finish FSU off in three (25-22, 26-24, 25-23).
“It’s very surreal,” Kaitlyn Wolters said. “I’m at a loss for words really. It’s just an amazing feeling to know that we can play that good, beat our rivals and knock them out of this tournament.”
The senior and GLIAC Player of the Year finished with a match-high 34 assists to go with six kills and zero errors (.500 hitting percentage). Aiken, who led all hitters with 13 kills and 20 digs, was one of four Lakers with more than 10 digs. Lound tallied eight kills and three blocks.
Lound’s presence inside was the difference Saturday in GVSU’s three-set win over No. 4 Rockhurst (25-14, 25-16, 25-19) -- she finished with 13 kills (.571 hitting percentage) and six block assists. Wolters had 34 assists, while Aiken and Ronda combined for 19 kills and four block assists.
Aiken, Canepa, Lound and Wolters were named to the NCAA Midwest Region All-Tournament Team.
“We worked so hard to get to this point,” Lound said after the win. “It’s just an unbelievable accomplishment, not many teams can do it. We swept through regionals -- teams don’t do that.”
GVSU (26-5), the only NCAA Division II team to sweep all three opponents in regional play, begins its Elite Eight run against No. 12 Wingate (34-2) on Dec. 4 at the Bellarmine campus in Louisville, Ky.