Thursday night's rematch of the 2011 NAIA National Championship had a strong reputation to live up to, but it came through in flying colors in front of a record volleyball crowd inside CU Arena as No. 2 Concordia defeated No. 1 Texas at Brownsville 3-2 on October 25.
The squads entered the NAIA Match of the Week undefeated and split last year's meetings 1-1, with Brownsville winning the title. The Concordia students, staff, and local community packed CU Arena on this night and propelled the ladies to a victory. The Eagles found themselves facing certain defeat multiple times throughout the night, but pulled through every time.
NAIA Player of the Year Brooke Marino was big time as usual, with 22 kills and 26 digs, and at times lifting her team when they needed the offensive boost. Madison Ekis was there in support with 16 kills and a .406 hitting percentage. Fellow star Fei Gao added 11 kills and 20 digs. Reanna Schelhaas stood tall in the middle against Brownsville's big Brazilian middles, and had nine kills and five blocks. Libero Kara Vincitorio was outstanding with 22 digs, withstanding power shot after shot from UTB's hitters.
"It's hard to talk about this game without talking about the atmosphere," head coach Dan Fisher said. "The story of the match was us finding a way. We would give up a few, but always found a way to get them back."
Danica Markovic, last year's NAIA Tournament MVP, was very tough with 21 kills and a .346 hitting percentage. UTB hit .202 on the game, compared to .169 for CU. The Scorpions won the blocking battle 13-9. Looking at the numbers, one would wonder how CU won the match. It came down to guts, a will to win, and a crowd that refused to let their Eagles quit.
Concordia was a bit too amped to start and fell down 10-6 in the first set. They held serve and with the score 15-10, began their climb. CU came back to tie the game at 16 led by two kills and an ace from Fei Gao. The Scorpions came right back with three straight, but a kill by Schelhaas capped a charge that tied it at 20. UTB went up three again, but CU came charging back on a kill by Ekis to tie it at 23. With the score tied at 24, a kill by Vanja Joksic and service ace from Michelle Marques saw UTB win 26-24. CU hit .154 in the match, compared to .083 for UTB.
Set two was really the make or break match for Concordia on this night. CU took an early 8-4 lead, capped by two Jenee Henderson aces. After a quick UTB response, the score was tied at 9-9. The teams went back and forth until UTB took a 17-14 lead on a Markovic kill. Kills from Marino and Gao responded to make it 19-18 CU. A couple CU errors saw the lead slip and UTB went up 22-20. Concordia trailed 24-21 and was staring a 2-0 deficit right in the face. With the crowd electric, a kill from Marino and Gao, and two UTB error made it 24 all. CU went up one, UTB responded. UTB went up another, CU responded. CU went up one, UTB responded. UTB went up one, CU responded. Two more kills from Gao and Marino finished the set, 30-28. CU hit .184 in the game, with UTB at .244.
"We did a great job staying in the moment in the second set," Fisher said. "It was great comeback and the kind of game we needed moving forward. We haven't been pushed like that this year and we know we need to be battle tested heading into nationals."
The Eagles carried their set two momentum right into set three. They ran out 7-1 led by kills from Ekis, Gao, Marino, Schelhaas, and an ace from Mindy Knight. UTB slowly started clawing back and trailed 12-10, before CU got on another run when two Marino kills put them up 15-10. Concordia held serve and UTB got within 22-18, before back-to-back blocks from Le Mi and Brooke Marino ended it 25-20.
Set four was sideout volleyball and the teams went back-and-forth more or less until the game was knotted at 18. Brownsville took control at that point and went on a 7-2 run to win 25-20.
The squads entered game five to 15 with everything on the line. The gym was still packed and loud as ever. CU jumped up 3-1 on a kill from Ekis. UTB came back to tie, but Concordia took an 8-5 lead when they switched sides on two UTB errors. Once switching ends, the Scorpions immediately scored three straight to tie it at eight. It was quickly Marino time, as she nailed three straight winners to put CU up 11-8. UTB responded to tie it at 12. Concordia took their turn with three straight, with two Ekis kills sandwiched around a Marino bomb for the 15-12 win.
With the win CU tied the all-time series at 3-3. Concordia took the throne as the only remaining undefeated team in the country at 25-0. Texas at Brownsville fell to 20-1. The Eagles now own the country's longest winning streak at 25 games.