Big Sky's best volleyball team resides at Northern Colorado
CHENEY, Wash. -- Northern Colorado volleyball is the best team in the Big Sky Conference.
The Bears, in just their fourth year of NCAA Division I play, turned in a performance for the ages Saturday night and knocked off regular-season champion Portland State with an efficient and dominating 3-1 victory in the championship match of the 2009 Big Sky Conference tournament.
Northern Colorado, which finished fifth in 2006 and 2007 before coming in third last season, got a career-high 28 kills from Championship MVP Kenzie Shreeve in the 25-17, 23-25, 25-17, 25-19 victory that came exactly two weeks after the Bears fell 3-0 at Portland State in a frustrating regular-season road defeat.
The story couldn't have been more different here tonight, though, where Northern Colorado hit better than the Vikings (.295 to .149) and got more attacks (64 to 47), more digs (70 to 58) and more blocks (12 to 5).
The Bears arguably played their best performance this season Saturday night in the most important match in program history.
"Two weeks ago, we were right in this gym (against Eastern Washington) and up in Portland the next night, and we got swept in both matches," Northern Colorado coach Lyndsey Benson said in the midst of an ecstatic postmatch celebration. "But by the time we walked out of that locker room in Portland we had an entirely different mentality.
"We knew we were most likely going to be playing those same teams to win the championship and reach our goal. And the girls, especially the seniors, said ‘We're going to do it. We're doing it.' From that point on, we really emphasized that if we stayed on the attack, good things would happen."
Now, the Bears will move on to their first NCAA Tournament, where Northern Colorado athletics will be represented on a national stage as a Division I team for the first time since Northern Colorado baseball made the last of its 10 College World Series appearances in 1974. The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is scheduled to air live at 1 p.m. (MT) Sunday on ESPNEWS.
All fans of Northern Colorado athletics are invited to attend a Selection Show watch party with the team at Old Chicago (2349 W 29th St.) and to come out earlier (around 10:45 a.m. MT, outside Bishop-Lehr Hall) to congratulate Benson, her assistant coaches and players as their team bus arrives back in Greeley from Denver International Airport.
"This isn't just a one-season accomplishment," Benson said. "This is something that was four years in the making. We came in in fifth two years in a row and then got up to third last year. And we finally broke through this season. This is huge for Northern Colorado volleyball and Northern Colorado athletics."
Allison Raguse backed Shreeve's performance Saturday night with 15 kills and 11 digs for her ninth double-double this season. Taylor Smith had eight kills and two blocks, and Ashley Lichtenberg added seven kills (on .357 hitting) and six blocks.
Breanna VanDerMost notched her ninth 20-plus-dig match this season with 21 against the Vikings, leading the Bears' defensive charge.
"The stats show that Kenzie was awesome out there," Benson said, "but Allison, Taylor, Breanna and Ashley have all helped move this program up to this point, too. I think all the girls have kind of questioned us (the coaches) all year, because we've pushed them so hard to achieve something that we knew was possible. I think they had thoughts of ‘Is this worth it?' a few times, especially this past month, but now, I think they definitely know it was worth it. This is a great step for UNC."
A great step for the Bears and a great opportunity for Benson and all her players, who will now get a chance to compete for college volleyball's ultimate crown.
"They are going to broadcast where we're actually going to go tomorrow," Benson said, "and I have no idea what that's going to look like. It's going to be a new experience, and that's just the icing on the cake. This was the goal, but now we get to go and see what we can do. We know we're going to have a tough draw, but we're going to go into it and have some fun."
2009 All-Big Sky Volleyball Championship Team
- Kenzie Shreeve, Northern Colorado – MVP
- Allison Raguse, Northern Colorado
- Marissa Hughes, Northern Colorado
- Whitney Phillips, Portland State
- Nique Fradella, Portland State
- Chenoa Coviare, Eastern Washington
- Sara Todorovich, Eastern Washington