In a matchup between the GNAC’s finest, Western Washington University was able to outlast the Seawolves in five sets to hand UAA its first loss in nearly two months.
The pinball match between the 19th nationally ranked Vikings and the seventh-ranked Seawolves drew in a crowd of 1,762 fans, the most in NCAA Division II Volleyball anywhere in the country this season.
WWU’s ball control and execution helped them extract a 25-22, 21-25, 26-24, 18-25, 20-18 victory for their fourth straight win at the Alaska Airlines Center.
“You have to give Western Washington a hand. They were smart, and didn’t make as many errors as we did,” head coach Chris Green said.
The Seawolves (21-2, GNAC 11-1) delivered several personal feats in Saturday night’s heavyweight matchup. Morgan Hooe had a career-high 59 assists, putting her over 800 on the season. Freshman Diana Fa’amausili tallied her fifth straight game with over 10 kills, posting a personal best of 17, while Chrisalyn Johnson had herself a career night as well with 22 kills. Libero Kyla Militante-Amper was all over the floor, breaking a school record with 43 digs, a record set by Seawolf Hall of Famer Jen Szczerbinski in 1990.
These were two of the hottest teams in the nation heading into Saturday, as Western Washington (14-6, 10-2) was carrying an eight game win streak while the Seawolves were coasting on 20 straight of their own, but the two powerhouses had different Thursday nights. UAA was coming off their first five-set match of the entire year, and survived a scare to Simon Fraser. WWU on the other hand easily dismantled UAF in three straight sets.
“I don’t [think] anyone was physically tired. It was just making the play or not making the play,” Green said after the loss.
Neither team could pull away from each other at any time during the pile up of 224 total points in the match. With a total of 45 tied scores and 21 lead changes, any breathing room was nearly impossible to come by.
A captivating first set featured Johnson making all the plays possible to keep the first game from slipping from the Seawolves. A pancake and three straight kills for Johnson gave UAA a 14-12 lead. However, by the end of the set, the Seawolves racked up four serving errors and nine attacking errors. The Vikings took advantage and become just the sixth team this year to take the first set against the Green and Gold.
The second set featured more of the same, as each school tried to out-craft and out-power each other. Fa’amausili led the way for the ‘Wolves, notching six kills, including a vicious cut shot to close out the second set 25-21, while Hooe contributed 15 assists, a kill, and established the demeanor of the team.
“We just have to be patient, when we lose our patience and start pressing, that’s when we don’t play good volleyball,” Hooe said.
Once again in a dead heat, the third set had the two teams alternating points seven times. A flare by Erin Braun knotted it up at 17, before WWU grabbed the momentum and found themselves up 23-19. Backed into a corner, UAA responded with four straight points, but it wasn’t enough as Joellee Buckner lofted a back set that Abby Phelps polished off with a cross court shot and the Vikings took the set 26-24.
In a must-win set for UAA, the Seawolves rattled off nine straight points, and they took a 17-9 lead against the Vikings. They displayed their resilience closed out the set 25-18. Down 2 sets to 1 is unfamiliar territory for the Seawolves, but they did not let the pressure collapse on them.
“Everybody did a good job of staying cool. Sometimes it’s hard because you get so hyped up that you want to put everything on their side of the court,” Hooe said.
In a winner-take-all fifth set, the first team to 15 points while leading by at least two points, is the victor, so every point is even more crucial. UAA dug themselves into a hole early, trailing 4-1 in the final set. A 7-2 run by the Seawolves put them ahead until Phelps came roaring back with two consecutive kills. The two teams would take turns earning points and fighting off each other’s charges. When WWU had a 19-18, Phelps gracefully placed the ball over the net, four Seawolf hands converged, but the ball hit hardwood, and UAA’s school record of 20 straight wins was snapped.
“We learned how to fight, especially when we are down. With our backs against the wall there was so many times when we could have just stopped, but we held each other accountable for each play and just kept pushing” Hooe said.
Phelps anchored the Vikings throughout the night, posting a total of 14 kills, 16 digs, and four blocks. 6’1″ Michaela Hall had 10 kills and seven total blocks, and outside hitter Arielle Turner had 12 kills of her own. Helping the Seawolves stick around in all the sets was Leah Swiss, who had her ninth double-double of the season, recording 13 kills and 12 digs.
UAA suffered their first GNAC loss of the season after fending off a comeback in a nail-biter against conference rival Simon Fraser. The games within the conference are getting tougher, and teams are now seeing each other for the second time this year.
“We are going to have to play well the rest of the way through. It doesn’t matter the night or the record of the team, from top to bottom the GNAC is as good as it’s ever been,” said Green.
Although they look at every opponent the same, the Seawolves will get a lighter game next, but on shorter rest. On Oct. 25, just three days following the five-set loss, UAA will host in-state rival Alaska Fairbanks, who sit in the cellar of the GNAC with a 1-11 record within the conference.