GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – The Calvin women's volleyball team faced off against the Wittenberg University Tigers (27-2) in the NCAA Division III Women's Volleyball Tournament Semifinals on Friday night at Van Noord Arena.
The Knights fell to the Tigers in three sets, 25-19, 25-20, 25-17. Calvin concludes its season with a 30-4 overall record, including a perfect 16-0 MIAA mark that earned the Knights their ninth consecutive regular season conference title.
The Calvin senior class finishes with an overall record of 124-13. The Knights only lost twice on the road in the past four years and went 60-4 at Van Noord Arena. They will walk away as the only team to go undefeated in MIAA regular season play for three-straight seasons.
This season's tournament run marked Calvin's 27th appearance in the NCAA Division III Tournament, including its 14th straight under head coach Dr. Amber Warners. Calvin is 55-26 In the NCAA Tournament, with three national titles, two second-place finishes and two fourth-place finishes.
"I would like to say congratulations to Wittenberg. I thought they outplayed us, they stayed in system longer and did a really nice job. I thought it was their night and give all the credit to them," said Calvin head coach Dr. Amber Warners.
Calvin entered Friday's match with a 14-13 all-time record against Wittenberg. The two teams had met eight times in the NCAA Tournament, including four times in the NCAA Tournament Regional Finals, with Calvin holding a 5-3 advantage.
On Thursday night, the Knights handed Johnson & Wales University its first loss of the season, sweeping the Wildcats 25-21, 25-19, 26-24 in the NCAA Division III Tournament Quarterfinals. With the win, the Knights reached the 30-win mark for the 17th team in school history, the 11th time under head coach Dr. Amber Warners.
In the other quarterfinal, Wittenberg took a 3-0 victory (25-14, 27-19, 25-19) over Swarthmore College. The Tigers captured their eighth regional title last weekend, with wins over PSU-Behrend, Juniata and Ohio Northern.
In Friday's semifinal match, Wittenberg controlled the play as the Tigers swung for a .327 match hitting percentage, while Calvin hit .149.
"I'm pretty sure that tonight was the first time this season that we really felt that we could be the underdogs, where we could have a little unencumbered free play. Calvin is about as tough of a team to beat in their home gym as I've ever seen," said Wittenberg head coach Paco Labrador. "I think the hitting efficiencies we had were very liberating and we had some pretty inspired defense from the back row."
The Tigers offense came out strong in the first set, using eight kills to take an early 8-4 lead before Calvin called timeout. Wittenberg continued to roll out of the break, landing a pair of kills along with a service ace, to make the score 11-4. A kill by senior Tessa Van Laare (Toronto, Ont./Toronto District Christian) gave the Knights a spark, but the Tigers continued to match Calvin's points and maintain their seven-point advantage. The Knights showed their resilience, stringing together a trio of points to bring the score 16-11, but the Tigers responded with three points of their own to force a second Calvin timeout. The Knights continued to chip away at Wittenberg's lead. A 4-1 run, capped off by a service ace by senior Jenna Lodewyk (Villa Park, Ill./Timothy Christian) made it a five-point game, and it was Wittenberg's turn to call timeout. Despite earning kill, a pair of Calvin service errors gave the Tigers a 22-16 lead late in the set. Facing a six-point deficit, the Knights landed four straight points to narrow the gap to 22-19. Despite Calvin's late push, Wittenberg claimed the next three points to take a 25-19 set-one win. The Knights struggled to stifle Wittenberg's offense, as the Tigers racked up a .429 hitting percentage in the first set.
Wittenberg continued to roll in the second set, taking a quick 8-4 to force a Calvin timeout. Coming out of the break, Calvin started to find its groove. Kills by Lodewyk, Van Laare, junior Anna Kamp (Orland Park, Ill/Chicago Christian) and sophomore Sarah DeVries (Grand Rapids, Mich./Northpointe Christian), along with a stuff block by DeVries and Ally Fea (Mechanicsburg, Pa./Mechanicsburg), cut the deficit to two points. Wittenberg called timeout, the scoreboard reading 11-9. Wittenberg responded with a 5-2 run to regain a five-point lead. After back-and-forth scoring, the Knights used back-to-back kills from Kamp and Van Laare to narrow the gap to two points. Wittenberg stifled the Knights' momentum, claiming the next three points to go up 21-16. Calvin responded with back-to-back kills, but was outscored 4-2 down the stretch as Wittenberg took a 25-20 set-two victory.
With their backs against the wall, the Knights came out strong in the third set. Senior Kristen Vyletel (Ann Arbor, Mich./Huron) kicked the set off with a service ace. Calvin was a force at the net, notching back-to-back blocks to earn a 3-0 lead. After a timeout, the Tigers were able to knot the score at four. A 4-2 Wittenberg run forced a Calvin timeout. The Tigers maintained their two-point lead, but began to pull away after reaching the 10-point mark. Leading 11-9, the Tigers went on a 5-2 run to earn a five-point lead and force a Calvin timeout. Wittenberg scored three straight points, but the Knights' matched the effort and the Tigers called timeout, the scoreboard reading 19-14. Wittenberg finished off the set with a 6-3 run to take the set and the match.
Wittenberg senior Maddie Fischer led all players with 14 kills, while Haley Horner and Taylor Brown finished with 11 and 10 kills, respectively.
Kamp led the Knights with nine kills and a team-high 11 digs. Lodewyk also recorded 11 digs, while pumping out 22 assists. DeVries finished with eight kills and two block assists, while Van Laare had seven kills.
The Knights graduate five seniors: Jenna Lodewyk, Kristen Vyletel, Tessa Van Laare, Emily Blankespoor (Grand Rapids, Mich./South Christian) and Megan Van Solkema (Escondido, Ca./Escondido Calvin Christian).
Over the past four years, the senior class has won four MIAA conference championships, three MIAA Tournament championships, made two NCAA Final Four appearances and won a national title.
"I would like to say thank you to these five women. Two final fours and a national championship really pale in comparison to what they've done for our program and the legacy they have left off the court with the relationships they have built. It's something that I will forever be grateful for," said Warners. "There's no doubt in my mind that they can walk away having no regrets. We talk about that all the time. You live your life, you be the teammate, you be the volleyball player, so that, when it's done, you can look back and say that you did everything you possibly could for every person you make contact with on and off the court. I think they did an incredible job of that all four years."
"It goes a lot beyond the wins and the losses and how well we do each year," said Blankespoor. "Yes, it's really special to get to the Elite Eight and play at home, but what's more special is the time spent with the team. I want to say thank you to coach and these four girls who have made my four years incredible, despite the wins and losses. I am walking away with friendships that I'll keep for life."
"We've had quite the journey over the past four years," adds Van Laare. "I feel so lucky. I'm blessed to have been able to play with these four. This season was a lot different for us than the other three and I think we stuck well together. It was awesome to be able to end it all at home."
With the loss, the Knights wrap up another impressive season, in terms of both team and individual accolades.
Calvin captured its second consecutive regional title last weekend, defeating Washington University of St. Louis in a five-set thriller that saw the Knights overcome a 14-10 deficit in set five. Calvin then topped Millikin in the second round and went to five sets in the regional final to defeat Carthage College.
Kamp, Lodewyk and DeVries were named to the AVCA Great Lakes All-Region Team, and Kamp was named the Great Lakes Regional of the Year.
Calvin punched its ticket to the NCAA Tournament with a 3-0 victory over rival Hope College to claim the MIAA Tournament crown, its thirteenth in program history.
The Knights landed five All-MIAA selections on the season. Kamp, Lodewyk and DeVries were named to the All-MIAA First Team, while junior libero Keilahna Castillo (Grandville, Mich./Grandville) and Van Laare were given All-MIAA Second Team honors. Kamp was named the MIAA MVP, the 21st in program history and the eighth consecutive Calvin player to receive the honor.
On Thursday, Lodewyk was named to the CoSIDA Academic All-District Team.
"I think this season was unlike any other," said Lodewyk. "It's special to be in a senior role and to be able to lead the team. It was fun to take people under our wing, on and off the court, to work through things. We had ups and downs, but it was great to see how everyone fought back, no matter what. On the court, I think this team was really gritty, but off the court, I think we fought for time together and to get closer. It was really special. All four years, looking back, I think that's what defines it – the people. That goes a long way – playing a sport with the people you love is unlike anything I've ever experienced."
A trio of Knights reached milestones this season. At the Elmhurst Invitational in September, Castillo recorded her 1000th collegiate career dig. Lodewyk tallied her 4000th career assist at Olivet in October, while Kamp collected her 1000th kill against Trine later that month.
"I would like to thank our Calvin staff for putting on a first-class National Championship, one that I will hold very dear to my heart, being able to be a part of it as the home team," said Warners. "I am really grateful for the opportunity."