For the first time in 16 years, the Biola volleyball team will be playing in the National Championship game.
A year after losing to No. 2 Concordia in four sets in last season's national semifinals, Biola turned the tables on its GSAC rival, registering a stunning sweep in today's semifinal match at Tyson Event Center, 25-17, 25-21 and 25-23.
The victory was especially sweet given that Concordia had beaten Biola twice already this season, including a tense five-set match at Chase Gymnasium last month. CUI had beaten the Biola seven consecutive times dating back to 2010, but today's match reversed a lot heartache for Biola's players, particularly the seniors.
"I've been saying all week I wouldn't want to win it all without beating Concordia," said senior co-captain Gracee Gallarda. "They are a great team, but we have a lot of leadership on the court and we've matured a lot the last three years. We were excited about the opportunity to play them again."
Her co-captain, senior Chelsee Arnitz, agreed.
"It's the only way I wanted to go – to either go down to them or beat them to get to the championship game," Arnitz said.
Arnitz led all attackers for the second consecutive match, recording 14 kills while hitting at a .542 clip. Gallarda contributed 36 assists – she leads the tournament in that category. Amy Weststeyn also recorded double-digit kills for Biola (12).
Beginning with Britta Blaser's solid block down the right sideline and concluding with an Alyssa Mason kill, the Eagles never trailed in game one. Biola jumped to a 6-1 lead, using a variety of blocks, kills and service ace from Charley Parker. Concordia pulled within a point only one time (8-7), and Biola maintained a four to six point lead through much of the set. The Eagles took advantage of a number of free balls set up by inconsistent Concordia passing.
Biola Head Coach Aaron Seltzer, who is taking his team to the finals for the first time in his 12 seasons at Biola, said, "To win, we had to do three things really well. First, we had to serve well – and to the right people. By serving well, we were able to force Concordia out of their passing game. Second, we had to block well. Playing a team for the third time really helped us; the team understood what they had to do, and finally, we needed to be thankful that Jesus put us in this position. We needed to relax and have fun and not worry about winning or losing. The girls accomplished everything we set out for them to do."
Early on, the second game was a back-and-forth affair. Concordia enjoyed its last lead at 9-8 on a kill by Hannah Andrews, one of six she had in the match. Biola answered back with kills from Mason and sophomore Joclyn Kirton, and Biola never trailed again.
"At the end of the day, we knew all roads would lead through Concordia," said Seltzer. "But we stayed focused through our matches to get to this point, and we were ready. We've battled them tough this year, but they were playing very well this week. "
After Concordia scored the first point of the third set, Biola ran off four points behind the serving of Parker, and held the lead until a missed block attempt gave the Eagles of CUI a 16-15 advantage. Mason then reeled off four serves – including an ace – to put Biola back in control, 18-15.
However, Irvine was not done, knotting the score at 22, setting up a nail-biting finish. Three patented kills by Arnitz, featuring backwards sets by Gallarda, gave Biola its biggest victory in more than a decade.
"Obviously, there's a lot of familiarity. Concordia is a veteran team with 10 seniors, but our seniors did a great job - leading, helping us to focus. The sophomores were also strong, although the numbers may not say it. Britta (Blaser) played well. It's not always about making the great block, but it's about being in the right place," said Seltzer.
The last time Biola reached the NAIA finals was 1997, when the Eagles were swept by BYU-Hawaii. This time, they face Texas at Brownsville, which took down fellow-Texas school Wayland Baptist in four sets, 25-11, 23-25, 25-16 and 25-15. Brownsville has been No. 1 in the NAIA since knocking off Concordia in October, and heads into the match a perfect 36-0. Brownsville lost to Concordia in last year's finals.
Biola lost to Brownville in Texas in October, falling in four sets.
"Brownsville isn't as fast, but they are big and physical, said Seltzer. "Their attackers are 6-4, 6-4, 6-1 and 6-1, so they are very tough. But we've played them before – the girl's know what to expect. That's why we went to their place and played them."
The Championship match begins at 5 p.m. PST.