Well, I guess it had to end sometime. What a fun season it was, though. The format for the NCAA Regional was a little strange, but as the #3 seed, we had the first time slot, which was the 12:30 match on Friday. Because of that, we came down to our hotel on Thursday night after practice, which is always kind of fun. (It makes us feel a bit like professional athletes.) The NCAA assigned us a hotel, which was one of the nicest we'd stayed in all year, so that was fun, too. It even had a Dunkin Donuts within walking distance.
In our opening game of the NCAA's on Friday afternoon, we played NYU-Polytechnic. They had some athletes, but were not nearly as deep as we were, and we basically controlled the tempo from start to finish. MJ, Julia and Elissa were our main offensive weapons with 9, 8, and 6 kills respectively. Amy Hart came off the bench in game three to have 4 kills, no errors on 7 swings for another one of her super-efficient hitting games! Caitlin had a match high 15 digs, and Lauren kept her 10 Assists per game up with exactly 30 Assists, while Stud played some great back-row defense. Meg played some right side, Maddie had a solid couple of games splitting time with the other middles who each played two games. Caroline made her debut back on the court for the first time in over 3 weeks, and Charlotte H. finished out the match behind the serving line. NY Poly was pretty big upfront, however, and blocked us pretty well, even though our coverage was fairly decent. For such a lopsided game, we thought (foreshadowing...) that the big block would be good preparation as we advanced.
Since we played so early, we had a leisurely lunch (outside in the warm sunshine, believe it or not!) where we once again enjoyed some of Lauren's mom's special sandwiches. We then went back into the gym to watch UMass Boston beat Maine Maritime as badly as we'd beaten NY Poly. It was such a lopsided game, that it didn't last long, but at least we got a look first-hand at what UMass Boston was doing, which was nice.
Our parent contingent was excellent once again! They had the M shirts from NESCAC's, signs, and cheers. It was great. They took us out for dinner (again), which was oh-so-generous as we ate above our budget (again!) and certainly got our fill at Bertucci's. THANK YOU!! Since we ate late, MJ's mom had her phone out at the table getting live stats for the Tufts vs. Springfield match going on at the same time. Springfield wins game one...game two....and a sweep of Tufts in three straight! Amherst would now play Springfield in the other Semi-Final. After dinner, Lauren and I went shopping for breakfast and lunch items for the next day, and then we all got to sleep in the next morning since we didn't play until 3:30pm.
I will note here that the NCAA has some rather odd peculiarities in general, but especially before the match starts. Not only are you not allowed to drink Emergen-C, or eat clementines and orange juice, but you are not allowed to be on the court, or touch a ball until exactly 60 minutes before the match starts. OK, fine. Then, right before the match starts, they take both teams and all the officials and go off the court in separate corners. Once the "dramatic music" starts, the officials lead each team out of their respective corners and march them to their end lines for the lineups and anthem. When the theme song for "Indiana Jones" came on Friday afternoon, I actually started to laugh out loud (almost). I think it was Julia who commented that we're merely pawns in the bureaucracy of the NCAA. It was pretty funny. The schedule of the matches allowed us plenty of time to hang out at the gym to watch matches, or to do work around the hotel (or paint nails, or both.)
Anyway, Saturday afternoon at 3:30 we played UMass Boston in the first Semi-final. We came out ready to go and took a close first set 25-20 behind our largest kills total--19 (and by far best hitting %--.471%) game of the match. We served them pretty well, and got them out of system, and we were able to use our middles early and opened up other options nicely. It was a very tight game back and forth until we finished out the set on an 8-3 run for the first set win. Whit had 4 kills on 5 swings, MJ had 6 kills on 9 swings, and Jane had 5 kills on 8 swings in the first game, which is great.
The second set, however, was a bit like the body-snatchers. We just didn't look like ourselves, or at least not the selves that we had looked like for quite a while now. We got down early and had a look of doubt on our faces like we weren't sure what was going on. We weren't passing well, we were getting blocked badly, and got down early from the first server on, and trailed the whole game. Julia was the only hitter without a hitting error in that game that saw us hit .135%, and Jane was the only one with more than 2 kills as she racked up 5 again in the 2nd.
The third set was a tiny bit better, but not a lot. It was another tight set like the first one to about 11-11, but when they went on a four point run at 15-11, they never looked back. They were forcing the action, and running the middle, and we were the ones on the defensive, and still hitting into the block. Caitlin came up with some big digs from their power hitter, but they had several balls go straight to the floor where we weren't. Perhaps the swing blocking made us "feel" like we had space to swing which then was not there, or we just didn't adjust to using other options well enough, but they blocked us very well. It was also a factor that we weren't pressing the action enough to force them out of what they wanted to do often enough. I felt like whomever was in system more was better able to control the action, and that was them in this match. #8 for them hit heavy balls from the back row too, and scored a few times on those plays even when we did our job of forcing them out of system and making them set back row. That all lead to us trailing most of the 3rd set as well, and not really challenging to take that set.
The fourth set opened up well, as our fight came out. We took an early lead, only to see it get swallowed up, before basically trading points for the last half of the set. It was an extremely tight last set as we were fighting to extend the match, and they were fighting for the win. I really felt like if we could just force a 5th set, then the match was anyone's game again. We still weren't clicking all that well, but I just felt like if we could pull out that game, we'd get back on track somehow. Well, we almost did...but not quite. We were down two match points, and came back to tie it, only to get down match point a few more times. I think we had set point only once in the extra points segment, but couldn't capitalize on it. We successfully saved several match points, until #8 ended our season with a stuff block on the outside. She was clearly the player of the match with a match-high 22 kills. She is the New England Region Player of the Year, and her coach commented after the match that she's never seen her play any better. She had 27 points for the match, seconded by Julia's 17.
If you look at the stat line totals, it was a very, very even match in every category except one: blocks. They blocked us 11.5 times to our 5.0 blocks. They ran a very quick middle attack when in system, and that forced us to stay and respect that, which may have opened up some opportunities outside. We just didn't face that quick of a middle attack all year, and I think we had trouble defending it effectively, both at the net, and in the back defensively. Also, #8 had a great match that proved a bit too much for us to handle. Caitlin by far had the match-high digs with 25, and we had three hitters with double digit kills: Julia (15), Jane (14), and Whit (11). MJ added 9 kills, and Elissa added 6. Lauren ended with a match-high 44 assists, and very good set distribution once again, trying to get everyone involved, and spreading out our offense, but still getting the most sets to our hot hand: Julia. She proved to be our best attacker on the day, hitting at almost .300%. Our receive struggled a bit due to thier tough serving, despite only having 5 receiving errors to their 3. I think it was off just enough to keep us from being as unpredictable as we wanted to be. The other thing that hurt was when we did pass well, we weren't consistently taking advantage of those opportunities offensively. All in all, that added up to a UMass victory. The fight we showed in the last set was great, and despite our many late-game comebacks this year, I guess we just didn't have one more left in the bag.
It was very sad to end the season, as always, but I really feel that this team had the talent to win at this level. There have been those years where we ended our season by losing the first round of the Conference Tournament to Williams and actually played really well, and felt pretty good about it! We didn't play awful this day, but we didn't play our best game either. I give UMass Boston a lot of credit, however, as they pressured us a lot, and really forced us out of our game. We did some very good things, however, and the team should be very proud of their efforts all season. We deserved to be here, as one of the best teams in the New England Region, and I think we showed that.
Truth be told, I don't shed tears that often when the season ends, but this was definitely one where I did. Some frustration at not playing how we wanted, and some sadness that it was actually over, I think. What a special group of young women. It was a fun ride, so thank you to everyone for making it a special season--one to remember for sure! I've had more emails from alums and others about their enjoyment in keeping track of our season this year, and that's been fun as well. I'll have a separate blog entry for all of our post-season honors as we had several players get some very nice honors this season, so there's still more to come....