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Mustangs claim fifth-straight MACC title

stevenson-volleyball-championship

For a second-straight season the Stevenson volleyball team has a senior class that doesn’t know what it’s like not to be champions. On Saturday evening the Mustangs captured their fifth-straight MAC Commonwealth championship with a 3-2 victory over second-seeded Messiah, a crown that also earns them a spot in their fifth-straight NCAA Tournament.

All five championship game victories have come over Messiah. This was the closest one, and second to go to a fifth set during the stretch. Stevenson won 24-26, 25-21, 25-17, 17-25, 15-9.

“Tonight was more gratifying than ever because that was Messiah’s best team I think they’ve ever had and this is the best team we’ve ever had,” head coach Dave Trumbo said. “We knew it was going to be a battle. To be able to beat Messiah, we were concerned. We worked harder than we’ve ever worked to win this championship.”

That work was collective. Setter Sara Bollinger, who is part of that senior class that has won a championship now every year of their collegiate career, said the depth on the team has been a huge advantage for the squad.

“All 18 plays are very capable to go out on this court and play their hearts out and do just as well as any of the starters,” she said. “Those people in practice are the ones who really fuel us to make us this good and make us win championship.”

Tournament Most Valuable Player Annika Schwartz led Stevenson with 13 kills and posted a double-double with 15 added digs. But she was dominant all around. She had three aces, four solo blocks and two more assisted blocks. As a team, Stevenson was out-killed 51-49, but they hit at a higher rate and out-blocked the Falcons 12-3. And after every one of those blocks, the team erupted and helped set a tone of the match.

“We already had confidence to start the game but blocks in any match fire up a team, especially our team. We love getting blocks,” she said.

Stevenson opened the match on a five-point run before a service error gave the Falcons a point. Stevenson continued to push forward out to a 10-5 lead, but the Falcons showed why they were in the title game. They tied the match with a 6-1 run. Stevenson got back ahead by two points at 17-15, but the Falcons refused to let up in the set. Stevenson was troubled by early errors that helped Messiah earn the 26-24 decision to take the first set.

However, Stevenson settled down both offensively and defensively. They committed 11 errors in the first set. They cut that number down in the next two sets as they roared back to take the set lead.

A four-point run midway through the second set was crucial in helping the Mustangs even the score. They committed only two attacking errors in the set. Messiah gifted the Mustangs with 10 attacking errors.

In the third set, it really seemed like Stevenson was about to run away with the match. They worked their way out to a 10-3 lead. After the Falcons trimmed it a bit, Stevenson took a double-digit lead at 17-7 after Victoria Prokic and Annika Schwartz blocked an attack by Mary Underman.

Messiah got within four points with an 8-2 run, but Stevenson scored the final four points of the set with three f the points coming off kills to improve to a 2-1 set lead.

But no championship can come that easy.

Messiah dominated the fourth set. Stevenson committed a match-high eight attack errors as they were out-hit .297 to .054 in the fourth set. The Mustangs just held one lead after winning the first point. Then Messiah worked their way out to a 9-4 lead. Stevenson was able to keep pace and made it a 13-12 set, but the Falcons used a a 9-3 run to take a 22-15 lead. Stevenson was too far in a hole and wasn’t hitting anywhere near well enough to come back. Messiah took the fourth set and tied the match with little trouble.

But while momentum seemed to have drastically turned in the Falcons’ favor, the Mustangs weren’t troubled by it. In the break before the fifth set, Stevenson never even talked about the importance of winning the match, they just focused on playing together as a team, getting one point at a time and playing the championship-level volleyball they’ve been playing all year long.

“We told all of our teammates that we need to come out there with confidence, be together and play like a team,” Schwartz said.

It worked. The Mustangs dominated the fifth set on their way to a championship.

“Every part of our game in that fifth set was all together,” Schwartz said. “No one was running into each other, we all knew where we were and we knew we were taking that game.”

Stevenson took a 5-2 lead in the fifth set. Messiah got the score even at 6-6, but Stevenson dominated the second half of the set. Two points in a row gave the Mustangs an 8-6 lead when the teams switched sides of the court of the final time. They scored two more right after to take a 10-6 lead and held Messiah to only three more points. A service error saved match point once for the Falcons, but Schwartz smacked the championship-winning kill down from the left side right after. Once the referee’s pointed toward Stevenson to confirm the point, the bench clears and celebrated near the net.

“That rush is amazing, being with your team that last season, everyone rushed the court; it’s the most amazing feeling,” Schwartz said.

While Stevenson was out-killed in the match, what they were able to do so effectively was roll balls over the net into ‘no mans land’ on the court. With a reputation as such a great hitting team, the Mustangs troubled the Falcons with chip shots over the blockers.

“We’re a team that loves to hit the ball as hard as we can so a lot of teams play us on their heels trying to dig us up, so when we do take those shots they almost always drop,” said Kristen Brooks, who finished second on the team with 10 kills while hitting .263 with nine digs in the match. “It’s all about taking our ego out, stop swinging the ball and placing our shots a little smarter.”

Trumbo put an emphasis on those soft kills after constantly seeing his team hit right to defenders waiting for digs over the past few matches, asking. Against Messiah the strategy worked to perfection. Messiah was playing deep on the line and finished the match with 81 digs, more than Stevenson, but they routinely had to dive forward in attempts to get balls that were dropping several feet in front of them and behind the blockers.

“It’s like a changup,” Trumbo said. “When they start looking for the changeup then you can go back to the fastball. You got to loosen them up and at least get them out of system. Even if the roll does not go down, at least you get them out of system and then hopefully you can get a free ball and then terminate. You’ve got to use both.”

The Mustangs will wait to see their opponent in the NCAA Tournament. The selection show is set for Monday, November 7 at 12:30 pm on NCAA.com.

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Corey Johns

Editor in Chief
You could say Corey was born to become a sports journalist. His father won a national championship coaching college soccer. His mother is a baseball fanatic who hasn't missed seeing an Orioles game since 1983 (literally, sometimes it's annoying). His great uncle was a big-time boxing promoter and his maternal grandfather was once a department head at the Baltimore Sun. Basically, sports and journalism run through his blood. He played just about every little league sports there was when he was a kid and was a multi-sport athlete in high school; even playing in the first-ever high school sanction Rugby game in the country. Eventually he retired from sports as an undefeated Maryland state Rugby champion as a high school senior. Perhaps lack of athletic talent has more to do with the retirement, but he will tell you that it more had to do with a great desire to jump right into media. Upon his graduation from University of Maryland, Baltimore County as a triple communications major, Corey started the So Much Sports network and has continued to grow his websites and continues to work to make them premier sports media outlets.

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