For three sets, it looked like a match between two teams who entered with a combined 40-2 record on Wednesday night in Omaha, Nebraska, during the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
In the fourth set, Weber State volleyball asserted its block and its attack. But before the Wildcats could bring home history, they needed a laugh.
Moments from claiming WSU’s first NCAA Tournament win in program history, the Wildcats saw Bowling Green cut a 21-12 deficit to 23-18. Head coach Jeremiah Larsen called timeout and, sensing his team was expecting the history that was about to come but not fighting to finish it, he lightened the mood with a joke.
“I think we realized the moment was out of hand ... once that was done, we refocused and talked about how we needed to be the aggressors. We have no pressure on us, and stay true to what we had been doing,” said Larsen, who declined to disclose the joke he told.
Emma Mangum fired a kill and, a few points later, WSU set up Sam Schiess for two powerful swings. The second found the court and the Wildcats defeated Bowling Green 25-18, 22-25, 25-22, 25-21 to claim Weber State’s first NCAA Tournament win in program history, and the Big Sky’s first such win since 2007.
“This is a huge day for Weber State volleyball. Six years ago we were barely getting by and now we just got our first NCAA win,” Larsen said. “Just really proud of how our kids handled the pressure. They just kept on grinding.”
It was the first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1988 for Weber State (19-1) and only the second overall for the program. Now, the Wildcats advance to play the tournament’s No. 1 overall seed in Wisconsin (13-0) at 5 p.m. MDT Thursday on ESPN3/WatchESPN.
Dani Nay led Weber State with 18 kills and 14 digs. Rylin Adams added 14 kills, and Schiess totaled 11 while hitting .524 for the match.
Ashlyn Power had 49 assists and four service aces, and Makayla Sorensen had 22 digs. Caroline Broadhead totaled eight blocks and Mangum had seven as the Wildcats stood up the Falcons for 16 blocks. Bowling Green struggled to solve the block in sets one and four, especially.
The match developed similarly to WSU’s 3-1 win in the Big Sky title match over Northern Colorado, which helped steel the Wildcats for the big stage.
“The Big Sky is a very good serving conference and passing conference, so I think that tournament ... helped prepare our passers to really be tested because Bowling Green is a really good serving team as well,” Schiess said. “It definitely helped us solidify everyone going into the tournament.”
Weber State opened the first set trailing 8-4 but soon turned it into a battle with its block, frustrating the Bowling Green (22-2) attack and taking an 18-16 lead on a block from Broadhead and Power.
That set up Nay to finish the set with authority. Nay totaled seven kills in the first frame, and six of them came after 16-16. She scored seven of her team’s final eight points, including five straight kills and an ace to win the set.
An 8-3 lead gave way to a give-and-take battle in set two, which Weber led 20-19 before the Falcons hit an ace to the back line to go up 23-20 and eventually take the set.
The margin in set three was not larger than three points until WSU made an 18-18 deadlock a 22-18 lead on two kills from Nay, an ace from Power and a Mangum/Broadhead block. Adams and Schiess combined for the set-winning block go to up 2-1.
WSU took control in set four, starting with a 5-0 lead and building it to 13-6 and 21-12 before Bowling Green’s final push, Larsen’s joke, and Schiess’s winner.
Next up: Wisconsin.
“I think this first game helped us kind of get used to the facilities a little bit and smooth out some of our, maybe, nervousness,” Schiess said. “As far as playing the No. 1 seed tomorrow, we’re pumped. We’re excited for the challenge and it’s just another day for us to go in the gym and get better, and be tested.”