The NCAA Volleyball Championship is Back!

After a difficult year due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Division 1 college Volleyball athletes finally got the opportunity to pursue their dreams of playing in the NCAA Championships, after it was cancelled last year due to the pandemic.

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NCAA photographer Jamie Schwaberow

The University of Kentucky’s Volleyball team poses with the fruits of their victory – swag gear, banners, confetti, and pieces of the volleyball net – in the NCAA tournament, after they defeated the Texas Longhorns to take home their first ever NCAA Championship title.

Boom! The gym erupts as Kentucky’s outside hitter, Alli Stumler, puts down yet another kill against the Texas Longhorns, but only to become quiet at the serve, and then erupt again as Texas University’s Logan Eggleston bangs one down the line to tie the score up. This past April 2021, Kentucky University’s Wildcats defeated Texas University’s Longhorns in the NCAA Volleyball Championship, to receive their first NCAA Championship title in the history of their program. As the tournament began, volleyball players and enthusiasts all around New York, from the heights of Throgs Neck in the Bronx to the lows of Battery Park in Manhattan, rejoiced over the ESPN livestreams – a measure that ESPN took this year to avoid COVID-19 safety risks of spectating. “I feel like I was part of a bigger group of volleyball enthusiasts,” said Bronx Science Varsity Volleyball outside hitter and defensive specialist, Melanie Chu ’22, who loved being able to watch the games and engage in virtual and in-person discussion about the tournament with friends and family. New York’s very own Long Island University even made it into the tournament! Many considered this an exciting accomplishment, considering that Northeastern teams often struggle to make it into the tournament.

The tournament opened with first-round playoff matches that ended pretty quickly – usually 3, sometimes 4 sets. The LIU vs. Pittsburgh first-round match was exciting for New Yorkers to watch, especially for me and for members of my club volleyball team, whose coach is also the assistant coach at Long Island University. As a quick recap, LIU posted a 26-24 fight to Pittsburgh in the first set, proving they could definitely play ball. But as the sets drawled out, their errors unfortunately got the better of them, giving Pittsburgh easier sets and the match at 3 sets.

The second round of the playoffs got a little more exciting, such as the 31-29 fight that UCLA put up in their second set against BYU. Minnesota State, Pittsburgh, Ohio State, the Florida Gators, Louisville, and Washington emerged victorious on the one side of the bracket, while Purdue, Oregon, Nebraska, Baylor, Penn State, Texas University, Kentucky, and Western Kentucky triumphed on the other. The matches, Western Kentucky versus Washington and Pepperdine versus Baylor each went to 5 sets, both ending valiant fights at final scores of 15-10. Most other second-round matches were pretty quick to go, generally in 3 sets.

During the third round, games got longer and more intense. Wisconsin quickly defeated BYU in 3 sets, playing smart offensively around their huge block and trusting their own show-stopping defense. Pittsburgh defeated Minnesota in 5 sets after each team traded back-and-forth wins. Florida versed Ohio State, faltering for a moment, but regaining their footing and taking the match in 4 sets. Washington and Louisville met for a thrilling third-round match that ended with a 15-13 win for Washington in the fifth set. On the other side, Nebraska defeated Baylor while Purdue successfully took on Oregon, meanwhile Western Kentucky defeated Washington State in a 5-set match ending at 15-11. Kentucky University sailed past University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and Texas University beat Penn State in 4 sets.

Then came Quarterfinals! Wisconsin beat the Florida Gators in a tense 5-set match, ending with a Wisconsin roof (block) of Florida outside, T’ara Ceasar’s swing. Pittsburgh lost to Washington in a somewhat shocking 5 set match: after winning the first two sets pretty substantially, Washington fought through three straight sets, defeating Pittsburgh 15-9 in the fifth. On the other side, Texas University handled Nebraska in 4 sets, and Kentucky wiped out Purdue in three. Texas and Wisconsin would meet for the NCAA Semifinal, as would Kentucky and Washington. 

On the court, the Texas Longhorns celebrate energetically in a huddle after winning a point in their Semifinal match against Wisconsin. The Longhorns defeated the Badgers in four sets, ending their prospect of return to the NCAA Final. (NCAA photographer Jamie Schwaberow)

The Southern teams of Texas University and Kentucky would not hesitate to end their Semifinal matches swiftly. Texas defeated Wisconsin in a surprising 3-set match, ending Wisconsin’s hopes of returning to the final, where they lost in the 2019 NCAA Championship against Stanford University. Grace Lorch ’22, starting setter of the Bronx Science Varsity Volleyball team, said she was “surprised when Wisconsin lost because they were seeded first,” but acknowledged their loss in the year prior and thus considered it not completely out of the blue. Lilly Flynn ’23 noted, “I loved the idea of Wisconsin coming back and winning the championship after a tough loss to Stanford last year, but I didn’t see much offensive power besides Dana Retke, and that was clear during their game against Texas.” The Texas versus Wisconsin game ended on the lightest block touch from one of Wisconsin’s right sides, a devastating cap to their journey. Kentucky defeated Washington in 4 sets, losing 25-23 in the second, but resurfacing dominant in the third and fourth. So, it was Kentucky versus Texas in the Final!

The Texas Longhorns throw up their mascot’s sign and cheer, in order to celebrate their victory against University of Wisconsin-Madison in Semifinals. (Mark Kuhlmann)

Texas’s position in the Quarters, Semis, and Final, assisted their mission to spread their political stance to a wider audience through the broadcasts. Being a team of many girls of color – in a sport that has historically been predominantly Caucasian – Texas athletes declared their support for the Black Lives Matter movement back in mid-2020. Specifically, the athletes demanded sweeping changes to address the university’s racial history and provide greater support for African-American students. Ever since the outcry for racial justice was amplified during the COVID-19 pandemic after the shocking death of George Floyd, the Texas Longhorns have been spreading awareness and working against racial injustice through donations, demands, and media. ESPN shared a recording of outside Skylar Field’s poem, ‘Being Black In America’ during the final, which she posted last June 2020 on her Instagram. The team also wore Black Lives Matter T-shirts, and wore black circular stickers reading “We Are One” during the NCAA tournament, a slogan defining their unified approach against racial injustice. “Athletes at that level are role models, so the young players looking up to them will also become more involved in the movement,” said Lorch. The other Texas outside, Logan Eggleston, is head of the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, and sees volleyball as a means to support future female athletes, address issues on social injustice, and give back to her community. On top of their devotion to their sport and academics, these young women are making history in their schools and working to uplift a new generation of powerful women.

Both teams had worked so hard to get to this final match, plowing through other teams throughout the month of April 2021. Texas could definitely boast their tremendous power-hits and impressive middle-back defense from Iosia, along with the strong culture that held the team together so well. But Kentucky had setter-weapon, Madison Lilley, named 2020-2021 American Volleyball Coaches’ Association (AVCA) National Player of the Year, being the first from the South Eastern Conference (SEC) to do so. Flynncited Lilley as her favorite player, admiring “her ability to play great defense, and to be the top setter in the country and also be offensive when her team needs it.” With amazing, lights-out talent on both sides of the net, volleyballers were hesitant to put their money on either team. It would only be illuminated once the final match ensued – so, drumroll please… and let the final match begin!

Texas came out strong, taking the first set 25-20, with a hitting percentage of 0.455 compared to Kentucky’s 0.216. Kentucky bounced back the second set, winning 25-18 with a 0.375 hitting percentage compared to Texas’ 0.241. 

In the third set, Kentucky started with a lead of a few points thanks to setter Madison Lilley’s quick and sharp-witted choices on offense; but Texas would catch right back up, often thanks to monstrous swings from Logan Eggleston and Skylar Fields. Texas looked like they had a chance, with the score at 23-21, and the serve — all they needed was two points to tie the game. But just out of timeout, libero Morgan O’Brien missed her serve (a libero is a Volleyball player on each team who serves as a defensive specialist). Texas was now in an extremely tense situation with the only option left being to fight through and let no balls drop; Kentucky, on the other hand, garnered the confident edge they needed to draw out the win, even after Eggleston put another kill down. Texas was not able to keep the ball up on their court three points straight to tie the score, so Kentucky won the third.

Mid-point and mid-air, Kentucky outside hitter Madi Skinner goes up for a solo-stuff-block on Texas outside hitter Skylar Fields, who hits out of serve receive on Texas’ right side. Skinner posted an astounding 0.455 hitting percentage in the NCAA Final match between Texas and Kentucky – greater than any of the Longhorns’ hitting percentages throughout the whole game. (NCAA photographer Jamie Schwaberow)

In the fourth set, the Longhorns came out with a lead of 6-1, going on runs of outside kills and blocks on Kentucky rightside Madi Skinner. But Kentucky caught up slowly, and as the score got close, Texas started making more errors – only one or two per player – but they added up in a time where it was crucial to make no mistakes. Despite this, they were still able to battle back and tie the score. At 21-21, Madi Skinner, Kentucky outside, swung for a kill; Kentucky libero, Riah Walker, followed up with a service ace off of Texas Defensive-Specialist, Nalani Iosaia’s fingers. The next play, Alli Stumler earned a kill with an offspeed swing that the Texas block was just out of reach of returning, bringing the score to 24-21. It was the winning point for Kentucky – Kentucky served, Texas set 6’5” Morgan Phillips on the right side – blocked! Setter Jhenna Gabriel stuck out an arm to cover, Nalani Iosaia rolled from her dive and set Logan Eggleston from the ground; Eggleston tipped down the line to Madison Lilley, getting Kentucky out of system. Libero Gabby Curry set Alli Stumler off, and she swung into the net. It looked like Texas would live to fight another point. Libero Sydeny Peterson served a deep ball – nearly out – Kentucky outside, Madi Skinner shuffled back and passed to Lilley, who set Stumler on the outside. Stumler approached, bouncing off the ground, and swung cross-court; the ball flew past Eggleston, nipping her platform and flying out, just as she jolted her arms out to dig.

Kentucky had done it — the first NCAA Championship in their program’s history. The players cheered ecstatically, charging the court from the bench and falling into a muddled heap of tears and smiles and laughs. Tears flowed, confetti fell, and players hugged. Volleyballers everywhere sat back in their chairs, in front of their televisions, computer screens, or phones, astounded by the amazing talent on both sides — and they were maybe even a bit sad that all of the volleyball was over. 

NCAA Collegiate volleyball is often the golden goal for young volleyball players, gleaming in their eyes like precious metal. The most tenacious of the bunch look beyond, hoping to play professionally, internationally, or even muscle their way into the Olympics. But regardless of how tenacious the young player, all “volleyballers” would agree that the annual NCAA volleyball tournament is one of the most exciting – and resonating – volleyball events of the season. College athletes work immensely hard throughout their seasons to reach the highly-acclaimed tournament while still balancing their academics, and then play like there is no tomorrow. You could truly say that these athletes are superb role models for young girls.

In past years, the NCAA has only chosen to broadcast the Final matches, which underwhelmed tournament hype and caused many college teams to be overlooked by fans. But this year was different: ESPN livestreamed every single game on its ESPN channels – ESPN2 and ESPN3 – accessible through their app. For the cost of $5/month, viewers could access those channels – and more, such as on-demand matches from previous tournaments or the regular season – from their computers, phones, and select television sets. The new source of access and entertainment spurred lots of excitement in volleyball players, now able to see the large population of players who actually play their way through the different levels of the tournament. “I loved being able to watch early matches that are sometimes just as competitive as the final ones,” said Lilly Flynn ’23. For many, like Chu and myself, the livestreams were “a great time to get together with friends and family to watch some amazing high level games.” 

All in all, the NCAA Championship tournament’s continuation after its cancellation last year, opened tons of doors for both the collegiate teams and fans. Long Island University represented New York in a first-time NCAA Championship appearance, ESPN livestreamed every single match, and Kentucky won their first ever NCAA title. Young volleyball players were ecstatic and inspired. “The tournament was impressive and inspirational, and I loved being able to watch the athletes’ technique and apply it to my own playing. It made me think about what I want for my future as an athlete and motivated me to work harder in everything that I do,” said Lorch. “I love watching these kinds of games because there is so much to learn from these amazing players, and watching how they move and think helps me improve how I play as well,” said Chu. Hopefully, these livestreams will bring more attention to the amazing athletes of college volleyball in the future, and maybe even enhance Eggleston’s goal of supporting the next generation of female athletes.

NCAA Collegiate volleyball is often the golden goal for young volleyball players, gleaming in their eyes like precious metal. The most tenacious of the bunch look beyond, hoping to play professionally, internationally, or even muscle their way into the Olympics.

 

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