Biola University put up a fierce battle against No. 1 Texas-Brownsville Saturday at Tyson Event Center, but came up short in its bid to win the NAIA National Volleyball Championship, getting swept, 27-25, 27-25 and 25-22.
The Eagles' loss came on the heels of five tournament victories this week, including a semifinal win over Golden State Athletic Conference rival Concordia on Saturday morning, 25-17, 25-21 and 25-23. Senior Chelsee Arnitz and junior Amy Weststeyn earned All-Tournament honors while leading Biola to its highest NAIA finish since 1997. The Eagles concluded the year with a record of 27-4.
The No. 3 Eagles certainly put a scare into the top-ranked Ocelots, who finished the year a perfect 37-0 on the season. Biola jumped to an early 3-0 lead on two kills by Weststeyn and another by Joclyn Kirton, and never trailed until the final moments of the first set.
Biola squandered a seemingly solid 21-15 lead, but still managed a set point at 24-23, thanks to an Alyssa Mason kill. UTB junior Vanja Joksic fashioned one of her team-leading 13 kills to knot the score. The Ocelots gained a set point of their own – their first lead in the game, but Gracee Gallarda's surprise drop shot saved Biola temporarily. Jennifer Kowalski turned the tables with a drop shot of her own a moment later, and an Ocelot kill ended the set in Brownsville's favor, 27-25.
"Our execution broke down late in the first game," said Head Coach Aaron Seltzer. "Brownsville is bigger and physically stronger, and many of their players have a lot more [international] experience. I wondered how our girls would respond after the first game, because they have used up so much emotional energy this week, but they didn't give up."
A highlight in game one was a spectacular save by Mason, whose momentum carried her towards the Biola bench. She leaped over the chairs, fell to the ground, but got back up to participate in the point.
"Alyssa played well, seeing her fly over our bench, and then getting back into the play – it just shows the heart, the grit, the toughness of this team," said Seltzer.
Biola fell behind by four early in the second game, and the Ocelots maintained that four-point advantage through much of the game, but the Eagles kept clawing back. Down 20-17, Biola used a kill by Kirton, a block by Weststeyn and a UTB error to pull into a 20-20 tie. Moments later the Eagles had their first lead, 23-22, on a Mason kill. Texas-Brownsville bounced back to gain a set point, but Arnitz answered with a kill. Finally, two Ocelot attacks beat Biola blocks and the Eagles found themselves in a hole, and lost set two by the same score as the first.
Game three was a back-and-forth affair early on, and Biola's last lead was a 9-8, but the Eagles hung tough through the entire set. Down 16-13, Biola picked up needed momentum on a Tara Rallis diving save to set up a Mason kill, a Kirton kill and an Arnitz block to bring the score to a 16-16 tie. However, the Ocelots went back on top by two points and led the rest of the way to capture the game, 25-22.
"We played so well," said Seltzer. "A couple of things go our way and it's a different result, particularly in those first two games."
The Eagles seemed to get stronger as the tournament progressed.
"We came together on the court. It's all about getting hot during this tournament," said Seltzer. "The first game, we were getting acclimated, but I thought the Dordt game was the best we played all season – until the Concordia game. We saved our best for the end of the season, that's for sure. It was a great year. I am proud to be their coach. They worked so hard. These are phenomenal kids, with high character and integrity; they care more about others than themselves. It was a great season."
Indeed it was.