Having already secured a berth in Friday's quarterfinals, the No. 3 Biola volleyball team had to dig deep at the 34th Annual NAIA Volleyball National Championships on Thursday evening before finally taking down No. 10 Lindsey Wilson in four sets, 26-28, 25-22, 25-21, and 25-18.
The Eagles, by virtue of their three-match sweep in pool play this week, will bypass the play-in round and take on either Grand View University (33-13) or Georgetown (35-10) tomorrow at 6 p.m. PST. Biola has not played Grand View or Georgetown yet this season, but the Eagles have a combined 2-0 record all-time against those two programs.
This is the fourth consecutive year Biola has reached at least the quarterfinal round; last season the Eagles advanced to the semifinals before bowing out to Golden State Athletic Conference foe, Concordia, in four sets.
Against Lindsey Wilson Thursday night, the Eagles didn't know what to expect. The Blue Raiders (36-6), the No. 2 seed in Pool C had anticipated a long run in the tournament, but by the time they faced Biola had already been eliminated from championship contention as a result of their 0-2 showing against the other Pool C members. Given the tight, nearly two-hour match, it's clear the Blue Raiders did not roll over at all, even knowing it was their final match of the season.
"This was their last game," said Head Coach Aaron Seltzer. "They have so many seniors, some very strong players. They play a different type of game than we typically see. They played tough. Their middle blocker (Kailey Moorhead) is one of the best in the middle we have seen – she gave us fits all night."
The "fits" began in set one, when, as strong as Biola's blocking was later in the match, the Eagles struggled up front early on. No team led by more than three points at any point in the set. Lindsey Wilson gained set points at 24-23 and 25-24, only to see an Amy Weststeyn kill and a missed drop shot knot the score. Biola saw its own set point go for naught when three consecutive kills gave the Blue Raiders the first set, 28-26.
For the first time in the tournament, and only the fifth time all season, Biola trailed in a match, 1-0.
"We had horrible matchups the first game, and it cost us," said Seltzer. "Game two we had the right lineup in place to match up well, but it took us time to get acclimated. It's like a puzzle; you kind of figure out what it looks like but it still takes awhile to solve."
That was certainly the case. In both the second and third set, Biola trailed late. As with the first set, no team led by more than three points in the second game, and Biola trailed 20-19 after a miss at the net. After a Blue Raider misfire, Britta Blaser slammed home a kill and then teamed with Weststeyn for a block that gave Biola a 22-20 lead. Kills by Weststeyn and Joclyn Kirton, plus another error by Lindsey Wilson, gave Biola the much-needed 25-22 victory and tied the match at one game each.
Over the four-game match, Kirton led a balanced Biola attack with 16 kills. She was joined by three other Eagles in double figures – Chelsee Arnitz (13), and Alyssa Mason and Weststeyn, both of whom had a dozen kills.
The third game was as competitive as the first two, but this time the Blue Raiders were able to build a three-point lead at the midway mark, 14-11. Four serving errors in the set contributed to the Eagle woes, but they rallied behind with hits from each of their four double-digit attackers to tie the game at 18-18. From there Biola slowly pulled away, closing out with a 25-21 victory, winning on a Blaser kill.
Biola finally began to dominate in the fourth set, leading wire to wire. The Eagles started off on the right foot with a five-point serving spree by senior setter Gracee Gallarda, and maintained a three-to-five point lead through most of the set.
The closest the Blue Raiders came was at 18-16, but Mason's cross-court smash dashed any hopes of closing the gap further. Gallarda, who started game four so well for Biola with the five successful serves, was there to close out the game with three more serves, and the Eagles had completed their three-game sweep in pool play.
"This was a good win," said Selzer. "Even though we didn't need to win to get to the quarterfinals, you never want to lose. It's all about momentum. We played so well against Dordt, there is the expectation that you are going to come out and blow out the other team, but against a good team like Lindsey Wilson, a team that plays so differently, it requires mental toughness and good game management to win."
Seltzer was happy about the improvements in the Eagles' blocking after a dismal performance in the first set.
"We had a lot of blocks the last three games – we were the best GSAC team in blocking and we put it to our advantage. We're a tall team – we should do that," said Seltzer. "Defensively, Tara (Rallis) had a lot of great saves that kept us in a lot of points, and what probably will go unnoticed was the blocking of Britta (Blaser). Their All-American (Nadellina Nesheva) really hurt us in the first game, but with a different rotation Britta was up against her after that and she did everything we asked of her. That was real important to us."
Now the Eagles (25-3) will await the outcome of the play in game involving Grand View and Georgetown, scheduled for 10:30 a.m. PST. Biola will play the winner of that contest in the quarterfinals on Friday night at 6:00 PST.