UMSL volleyball team caps historic season by reaching the national semifinals
Ryan Young has always hated addressing his University of Missouri–St. Louis volleyball team following the last match of the season.
Friday night was no different in the aftermath of a 25-23, 25-21, 23-25, 25-23 loss to eventual national champion West Texas A&M University in the semifinals of the NCAA Division II Championship in Seattle.
“Whether it’s conference tournament, regular season, national tournament, national championships, it’s always it’s my least favorite talk of the year, because it’s over,” said Young, wrapping up his 12th season as the head coach of the Tritons.
But as he talked to his players in the locker room at Seattle Pacific University’s Royal Brougham Pavilion, they all had a sense, even amid of the disappointment of coming up short, that they had done something they – and the university – won’t soon forget.
“There weren’t a lot of tears,” Young said. “I think they were so proud of how they played. Obviously, a little bit of frustration. They’re competitors, right? So they hate to lose, just like me, but I think they realized how special the season was.”
Only a year after winning an NCAA Tournament match for the first time in program history, the Tritons went into hyperdrive to build on that success, winning 10 straight Great Lakes Valley Conference matches to grab a share of the regular-season title, then bouncing back from a frustrating loss into the GLVC Tournament semifinals to win the NCAA Division II Midwest Region title for the first time.
That’s what brought them to Seattle last week as one of only eight teams still standing in the national tournament.
Most had modest expectations for the Tritons, who were seeded seventh, and matched against a Barry University team led by national player of the year Diana Akopova. The Buccaneers had knocked off reigning national champion Tampa en route to the national quarterfinals.
UMSL (25-7) never seemed intimidated by the big stage, starting quickly while taking the first set against Barry on Thursday. Senior All-American outside hitter Charlotte Richards finished off the opening set with one of her team-high 24 kills.
The Buccanneers weren’t pushovers, especially with Akopova registering a match-high 37 kills. The hitting prowess of the sophomore transfer from Syracuse and a strong block helped Barry win the second set and get the upper hand in the third set as well, and three times it opened up leads of at least four points – the last a 23-19 advantage.
That’s when the Tritons resilience shined through. They pulled even at 23, then staved off three set points. Back-to-back kills by Lexie Rang and Hailey Flowers gave UMSL its first lead 27-26. Mya Elliott and Flowers then combined for only the Tritons’ second block of the match, denying Akopova to give UMSL a 2-1 lead.
“Obviously, that was the turning point in the whole match,” Young said. “We had been playing pretty well, pretty consistent up until then. Set one was great for us. Set two they played much better. But being down 23-19 and just kind of taking a point by point and just staying together. Mya got a huge kill for us, and we served really well. Kylie Adams got an ace. We just kept believing in ourselves one on one, and I think we got them caught in a certain rotation which was super helpful. Charlotte was in the front row for us. We just kept battling, and it was fun to see that grit and toughness come out that juncture the match.”
The Tritons didn’t relax, jumping out to a 15-10 lead in the fourth set behind the versatile attack of Richards, Rang, Flowers and Hannah Copeland. Freshman setter Caitlin Bishop found a groove spreading the ball between them on a night when she finished with 54 assists.
The team withstood one final push by Barry, but Rang – who had 17 kills – hit two back-to-back to give UMSL match point, and Flowers delivered the clinching kill that sent the Tritons into the semifinals.
But the magical ride ended there against ninth-ranked West Texas A&M team, which attacked from all directions out of a 6-2 system. The Lady Buffs outhit the Young’s team .229 to .158, and junior outside hitter Torrey Miller registered a match-high 22 kills.
“They’re extremely tough,” Young said. “I think the biggest challenge with them is they’re so balanced. They run a 6-2 offense, so they always have three front-row hitters, and they can utilize all of them. That was a huge challenge for us not being able to key on one attacker.
“But we stuck together and went on some runs against them. At the end of the day, they just made a couple more plays than us, and that’s the name of the game, but it was fun match and I’m pretty proud of our effort overall in that one.”
Young wasn’t surprised in the least to see West Texas A&M (33-4) knock off Concordia-St. Paul (31-5) in four sets in Saturday’s final.
But he knows his team played competitively with the best in the country, and that gives the Tritons plenty of confidence heading into next season.
The only player in line to depart is Richards, a three-time GLVC currently working on her master’s after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in supply chain management. She leaves as the most decorated player in program history.
“The accolades that she’s achieved, I don’t think I could have dreamt that for any singular player I’ve ever coached here,” Young said. “Her relentlessness to get better, I think is the biggest thing for me. That is more important than all the accolades she’s achieved. She’s a great leader, a great role model for our younger kids to look up to, and just her work ethic is incredible. She’s just an amazing kid, and I couldn’t be happier her for happier for her to experience this with all of us and lead us to the national semifinals in her final year.”
As much as Young will miss Richards, he’s encouraged by all the players returning – including the setter Bishop; Rang, who finished second to Richards in kills; and defensive specialist Adams, who led the team in digs.
“Obviously losing Charlotte’s a big piece, but we return everyone else,” Young said. “Hopefully, this experience can push them to stay hungry and continue to improve.”
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