Northern Colorado stuns Weber State volleyball in 5-set Big Sky title epic
OGDEN — Swenson Gym was electric Saturday night.
The Big Sky tournament championship match between No. 1 seed and host Weber State, and No. 2 seed Northern Colorado, saw packed stands, a full set of small bleachers added to one corner, people standing along one back wall, and plenty of people — including a host of WSU football players — standing on the running track that oversees the gym.
Senior outside hitter Rylin Adams was having an all-time great match through three sets — 22 kills, just four shy from a new career-high — as the Wildcats led 2-1 and had the gym bouncing.
It was electric, that is, until it wasn’t.
Northern Colorado upped its game, Weber State stopped passing as well, and the Bears rallied to win in five sets to stun the reported crowd of 1,286 fans, all WSU faithful but for a couple dozen from Northern Colorado.
A historic Weber State run of 27 straight home wins, an unprecedented two straight regular-season titles and a possible second straight trip to the NCAA Tournament were stopped by Mackenzie Harris and the Bears by scores of 30-28, 21-25, 14-25, 25-22, 15-8.
“We just stopped passing the ball. When we don’t pass the ball, we become very one-dimensional and they can line Rylin up,” WSU head coach Jeremiah Larsen said. “We have to be diverse in our offense and we weren’t, we became super one-dimensional, therefore had a tough time siding out and transitioning balls. They played a little bit better but we didn’t receive their serve very well at all and that really puts a lot of weight on (Adams’) shoulders.”
Despite starting down 3-0 in the fifth set, Weber State saw it back to 4-4 before Harris took over. Harris lined up four consecutive kills to put Northern Colorado up 8-4, then served an ace to make it 10-6 to answer an ace from Adams. Harris finished with 23 kills.
Adams eclipsed her career-high in kills, and set a new high mark for the Big Sky this season, with a pair of kills down the stretch to give her 27, but it wasn’t enough and the Bears stormed the floor as champions.
Made to stay on the floor for tournament honors — Adams and senior middle Sam Schiess were named to the all-tournament team — a near fury seemed to pour out of the all-time competitor Adams as she sat on the sideline bench, with a hollow-eyed, motionless senior setter Ashlyn Power next to her. The Wildcats had gone up 2-1 with a convincing 25-14 set win and now had to watch the Bears celebrate on their home court.
Larsen eventually sat next to Adams and put his arm around her.
“She’s a passionate kid. I let her have her moment and then told her to keep her head up and be proud of the things she’s done in her career,” Larsen said. “It was time to let it go and to understand that she did everything that she could to be successful. I was super proud of her, and who she is and what she did.”
The toughest pill to swallow, looking back, is that Weber State was four set points away from actually having a sweep to the title.
The epic first set, portending the match to come, was within two points for almost the entirety. It got to a 24-23 set point for Northern Colorado before an Adams kill and a Kate Standifird ace got Weber a set point at 25-24 — then at 26-25, then 27-26, then 28-27 after an outrageous Makayla Sorensen dig led to an Adams kill.
But Northern Colorado turned away set point each time, and two kills from Kailey Jo Ince and a solo block from Cece Huhn delivered a 30-28 win.
Adams’ 27 kills put her third all-time in Weber State history with 1,401.
Power dished 56 assists and, after long ago becoming the assist queen at Weber State, totals 5,518 in her career, which is No. 1 in Big Sky history in the rally-scoring era (and No. 2 overall).
And Schiess was nearly unstoppable early, attacking at .800 or above into the third set before finishing with 14 kills on a .538 clip. She’s now at a .329 career hitting percentage, second all-time in Weber State history.
“They’re the world to me. I love those three kids,” Larsen said of the three seniors, pausing to gather himself. “They came here when we were not good and they believed in something that we didn’t have. And to be able to come away with two regular-season championships, and a tournament championship, and an NCAA Tournament win is a dream come true for those kids. All they do is put everything on the line for me, so yeah, they’re incredibly special to me.
“They’re just wonderful people, great leaders, and took this program from nothing to something.”
Sorensen had 24 digs and Power chipped in 22 digs. Adams added 15 digs and three aces to her night. Schiess had 12 block assists and one solo block, including a series where she and Emma Mangum combined to block four consecutive Northern Colorado swings during a second-set volley, the last one finally resulting in a point.
Northern Colorado (24-6) awaits its destination in the NCAA Tournament. Weber State (20-9) is a lock for the National Invitational Volleyball Championship if they choose to participate.