Down 6-2 in the fifth set of the MIAA Tournament Championship, Northwest coach Amy Woerth remained calm and composed on her chair, a spot she hardly moved from during the entirety of the tournament.
Woerth showed no signs of worry, as there was still a spark of fire deep within the Bearcats, who battled back after losing two early sets against No. 11 Nebraska-Kearney April 17 at Lee Arena in Topeka, Kansas.
“I tried to keep them in the moment, but everything you saw out of those sets was them and their determination,” Woerth said. “They didn’t want to give up, and they put in a lot of hard work. They’ve had a lot of sacrifices, and they just hung together.”
The path to the championship was no easy obstacle for the Bearcats, who had two AVCA Top 25 teams standing in their way with the same goal in mind. This was the perfect opportunity for Woerth and company to prove they belong among the best in the nation.
Game 1: Washburn
Northwest began its quest toward an MIAA Championship with No. 14 Washburn (14-5) April 16. The atmosphere was different compared to prior postseason tournaments, as the Bearcats had to overcome playing the Ichabods on their home court.
The Ichabods showed their home-court advantage early, using impressive blocking at the net and forcing Northwest out of its comfort zone, forcing errors early to grab an established 5-1 lead. After an unusual timeout from Woerth, down 13-9, the ’Cats ended on a 16-7 run, capturing a 25-20 victory in the first set.
If the first set didn’t have the heart rates of both teams rising, the ensuing two sets did. The second set proved to have zero room for errors, having five ties and nine lead changes.
Down 22-20, junior outside hitter Kelsey Havel rallied her team together off a kill that evened the score at 24. Havel’s kill was not quite enough, and the Bearcats dropped the second set 26-24.
The third set did not favor Northwest, as the ’Cats were losing grip on the set down 20-17. They capitalized on the soft spots in the Washburn defense, pulling themselves from the depths to tie the set at 23. While junior middle hitter Bethany Elkins led the team with five kills, the Bearcats dropped their second straight set.
Woerth never felt like her team was in trouble of exiting the tournament early, as she knew her team was highly capable of winning the fourth set. She wanted her team to raise the energy levels and to get after it with the mentality that got the Bearcats there in the first place, something Woerth has preached since stepping onto campus.
“I never really had a thought in the tournament that we were done, but I knew it was time for us to turn it on and get it down,” sophomore setter Alyssa Rezac said. “This team has a lot of fight, and giving up or letting a game go isn’t really in our culture.”
The Bearcats did, in fact, have a lot of fight left within them, as they were battling to keep their memorable season alive. Havel, who seemed to not feel any pressure, used back-to-back aces in the fourth set to take a 13-12 lead.
The deciding factor came from the play of sophomore outside hitter Jaden Ferguson, who rose above the net for a clean solo block, which paved the way toward the Bearcats clinching a 25-22 set win.
“I told them it was zero to zero, and it’s a game to 15. I didn’t make it a big deal that it was a fifth set, you know, I coached enough players and teams to know that it is about the mental side,” Woerth said. “Again, we just focused on the process, and we definitely had the momentum going when it came to getting that fourth set and some really big plays in the fourth that carried through.”
Going into a fifth set was a big deal, as Northwest had not been in a position of playing a deciding fifth set since Nov. 2, 2019. Nobody would’ve been able to tell, though, as Northwest roared to a 15-12 win, mostly due to Havel’s six kills.
“I am really proud of them for stepping up. We try and practice as many pressure situations we can during our practices, but playing Washburn in their home gym in the conference tournament isn’t something you can really practice,” Rezac said. “So, to come out and execute our game plan and handle that pressure is something to be proud of.”
Game 2: Central Missouri
After an afternoon of high-level MIAA play, the Bearcats found themselves back in Lee Arena for the MIAA Tournament Semifinals against Central Missouri April 17. Northwest swept the Jennies (11-4) in the only meeting of the year March 27.
Northwest showed no signs of fatigue from the afternoon before when the teams took the court. With the first set tied at 13, the ’Cats stood their ground and set the momentum for the rest of the match, going on an 11-1 run, which gave way to a 25-15 triumph.
“We really broke down serving; they struggled from that standpoint of receiving our serves. We knew that was a huge mismatch because they were not in their system,” Woerth said. “They have a good offense, but if you can’t get the right people the ball, you really take that away from them.”
The Jennies, who were trying to avoid being swept by the Bearcats twice this season, found its stride in the second set, taking an 18-12 lead. In a matchup that was all about runs, Rezac took it upon herself to set Northwest back on track. The ’Cats countered the Jennies with a 6-0 run of their own courtesy of Rezac’s serving skills to even it up at 18.
Freshman outside hitter Olivia Dir entered the game with Northwest down 18-12 but used three crucial kills to put the Bearcats up 25-24, and Ferguson cleaned up the remaining mess with a shot that clinched a 26-24 second set victory.
“We just continue to focus on the moment, but when we were going on these runs, it was all about serving then playing defense and dig-to-kills,” Woerth said. “We just really focused on getting gritty on defense and making sure that whatever they did out of system we could take that and turn it into an offensive point for us.”
The third and final set was nearly identical to the second, with the teams knotted up at 13. Northwest again used a 6-0 run to push the score to 19-13. Dir used four kills, including the final kill of the game, to give Northwest a 25-18 win, securing the Bearcats’ spot in the championship game.
“We were very excited,” Rezac said. “I’m not sure that Northwest has ever won a second-round game at conference. So, to break that streak was rewarding, especially given the schedule we had to get there.”
Championship Game: Nebraska-Kearney
In a quick turnaround, the ’Cats took the court one last time April 17, with the goal of being champions within their reach.
After scoring the first point of the match, the Lopers responded with two points of their own and never looked back. While Dir and freshman outside hitter Payton Kirchhoefer combined for five kills each, it wasn’t enough to overtake Kearney, losing 25-18.
The second set wasn’t much better for the Bearcats, as they struggled to make a run of their own to pull away from the tight grip of the Lopers. Elkins made contact with the floor off a kill that brought the ’Cats within two points, but a 6-1 Kearney run was all that was needed to grab its second straight set 25-18.
“We knew we weren’t playing at our best. A big part of the spark for us was Hallie Sidney. She pulled us on, got on us a little bit, reminded us that we were there for a reason and that we are very capable of getting it done,” Rezac said. “I think that how we came out and responded to that message from her says a lot about the team but also about Hallie herself.”
After a rotational change that was made after the second set, Northwest found its rhythm. After a 5-0 run from Kearney to start the third set, the Bearcats took their first lead at 11-10 after a kill from Ferguson.
It wasn’t smooth sailing from there, as the Lopers battled back to regain a 21-19 lead with the championship in their sights. Havel stepped up once again, using a pair of kills to help retake the lead at 22-21. A service error by Kearney at set point gave Northwest a 25-23 win in the third set.
“I saw something out of the third set, that Nebraska-Kearney started wearing down a little bit, and that’s when I knew we had our in,” Woerth said. “We could really get after our game plan, and I thought that’s when we started really laying down our game plan and were able to feel like we had more control.”
The Bearcats started the fourth set on a 7-1 run. Up 16-14 and coming out of a timeout, Kirchhoefer tallied two kills, and Ferguson tagged one of her own, pushing the lead to 19-14.
With Northwest clinging to a 21-19 lead, Havel had her own response and put down a pair of kills. Kirchhoefer ended the match with a kill for set point, giving the ’Cats a 25-22 victory.
It all came down to the fifth set, where the Lopers were trying to win their second MIAA Tournament in as many seasons. Down 6-2, Northwest did not back away and evened the score 7-7.
The Bearcats forced a Kearney timeout up 11-9, but the Lopers came out of the break to score five straight points. The determination of the ’Cats burned brightly in their eyes, scoring the next two points to pull within 14-13. After a Lopers’ timeout, they scored on a kill to take the fifth set, 15-13.
“I’m immensely proud of them. They put everything out on the floor,” Woerth said. “They wanted it just as bad as Kearney did, but down the stretch, it was just some offensive challenges that we had that really hurt us down the stretch. Those mistakes came back to bite us. They were fighting tooth and nail all the way to the end and never laid down. Phenomenal season, phenomenal run, great focus and a lot of grit from our players.”
The MIAA All-Tournament Team, as voted on by the league's head coaches, gave recognition to four Bearcats, the most of any team. Junior libero Hannah Koechl, senior middle blocker Morgan Lewis, Ferguson and Rezac all made the team.
“I am very honored. It is definitely something I was not expecting,” Rezac said. “In volleyball, there isn’t really any award that represents an individual, so I have to credit my team for giving me opportunities to be successful because without all their hard work, it wouldn’t be possible.”
As the spring season comes to a close, Northwest ended the season 14-3 and 6-2 in the MIAA. Woerth knows the program was lucky to participate in a spring season during a global pandemic and shared her gratitude with everyone who made it possible.
“I just want to thank our administration. This is a really, really busy time for them, and I appreciate how much effort they put not only into our sport to make this a season but to give us something to play for,” Woerth said. “They allowed us to play the game we loved and went to the ends of the Earth to be able to make sure that we felt that way about getting in here and doing what we love. Thankful for our fans, for the support they were giving us throughout the entire season.”
The season showed a lot of promise of what is to come from the Bearcats when they return to the court in the fall.
“I think it really opened our eyes to the potential this team has,” Rezac said. “This spring was only a glimpse of what we are capable of, and as a player, I am extremely excited to see how this team will continue to develop and grow together. This team is very competitive, so when things ended the way they did, we have some motivated girls eager to get back to work.”