University of Missouri–St. Louis senior outside hitter Lexie Rang set off the celebration Saturday night when she slammed the ball toward the soft center of the Ferris State defense, off the hand of a diving defender and ultimately onto the floor at the Mark Twain Athletic Center.
She threw her arms up and slid on her knees toward her Tritons teammates, who piled on her as the bleachers around them exploded in a mixture of high fives, hugs and applause.
There were nearly 600 spectators on hand, cheering the final point of the fourth-ranked UMSL volleyball team’s 25-20, 19-25, 25-20, 25-17 victory over the 21st-ranked Bulldogs, which clinched the Tritons’ second consecutive NCAA Division II Midwest Region Championship and booked a spot in the national quarterfinals.
“It felt really good,” Rang said in the post-match press conference after finishing with a team-high 23 kills, including three in a row to close out the victory. “I knew it was either my last game ever or something that we get and we continue to move on. For the fellow seniors and our fifth-years, we put it all out on the court, and we wanted it really, really badly.”
It showed throughout the weekend as UMSL – led by Rang and fellow veterans Delaney Humm, Mya Elliott, Hailey Flowers and Kylie Adams, along with sophomore setter Caitlin Bishop – dispatched of eighth-seeded Missouri S&T, fifth-seeded Grand Valley State and second-seeded Ferris State in successive days, winning all three matches in four sets after dropping the second.
Humm had a career-high 27 kills to lead UMSL to the quarterfinal victory over the Miners on Thursday, and Humm, Rang and Flowers combined for 41 kills in the semifinal win against the 24th-ranked Lakers on Friday.
Saturday’s match against Ferris State presented the stiffest test as the Bulldogs took the second set 25-19 and made the Tritons sweat out a 25-20 win in the third.
“We got challenged by a really nice Ferris team,” Coach Ryan Young said in the press conference. “They served us extremely tough and gave us some fits, especially in Set 2. But then I think we rose to the occasion as the match went on, picked up our defense. I thought in Set 4 again, our defense did an awesome job, creating swings in transition and quality digs. It was a really nice job by our kids to adjust after that Set 2.”
UMSL finished with 86 digs to Ferris State’s 65. Adams finished with a match-high 25 digs.
The Tritons also pulled out several long rallies, spurred on by the backing of the home crowd.
“Playing in that crowd and having our sports teams around and everyone come together in our community just to cheer us on, there’s no other feeling you’ll get,” said Bishop, the Midwest Region Player of the Year, who finished with 56 assists while directing the UMSL attack. “I feel like it rallied and helped us throughout every point.”
“Especially when you win the point, you just hear everyone go wild, and it gets you hyped,” said Rang, who passed the milestone of 1,000 career kills in Saturday’s victory.
The fan support helped UMSL become the first No. 1 seed to win the Midwest Region title since Indianapolis won it on its home floor in 2012. The Tritons are also the first back-to-back Midwest Region champion since Grand Valley State won two in a row in 2007 and 2008.
UMSL (33-1), whose lone loss came against Lewis in the Great Lakes Valley Conference Tournament final, is now headed to the national quarterfinals for the second time in school history.
Young made clear that, unlike last season when the Tritons beat Ferris State to advance to the final eight, they aren’t going to be satisfied just to be on the national stage.
“Prepare for three wins,” Young said. “Not like last year, one. We want to get all three.”
The coach and his players have thought of themselves as title contenders since the season began, even as they worked to replace All-American outside hitter Charlotte Richards, now one of nine finalists for 2023 NCAA Woman of the Year.
UMSL opened the season ranked No. 10 nationally and were picked to win the GLVC regular-season title, so the Tritons have played with a target throughout the fall. It didn’t prevent them from winning their first 30 matches, 21 in straight sets while being pulled into a fifth set only once.
“We’re in playoff mode the whole season because we’re getting everyone’s best match,” Young said. “That helped us tremendously to get in that mindset in the regular season, the conference tournament, into this tournament. Knowing that every day, you’re getting your best shot. It’s tougher on the road, especially in our good conference. We rose to the occasion, and all the highs and lows of the season – you know, a lot more highs than lows – that helped us get to this point. We always want to continue to learn about ourselves.”
Rang, Humm, Bishop and Adams were named to the Midwest Region All-Tournament team.