UMSL volleyball team’s remarkable season ends in NCAA semifinals

by | Dec 11, 2023

The Tritons beat Anderson University in four sets to reach the national semifinals for the second straight year but were swept by eventual national champion Cal State Los Angeles.
Volleyball player Lexie Rang leaps and slam the ball toward the Anderson side of the net in an NCAA Division II quarterfinal match

Fifth-year senior outside hitter Lexie Rang had a match-high 23 kills as the UMSL volleyball team beat Anderson University in the NCAA Division II quarterfinals on Thursday. The Tritons fell a day later against eventual national champion Cal State Los Angeles in Friday’s semifinals. (Photo by Luke Rinne)

The University of Missouri–St. Louis volleyball team’s season didn’t come with the storybook ending Coach Ryan Young and his players – including seven seniors – wanted.

Rather than returning from Moon Township, Pennsylvania, with the NCAA Division II national championship trophy, the Tritons found themselves bounced in the national semifinals by the eventual winner for the second straight year.

UMSL (34-2) couldn’t overcome Cal State Los Angeles’ size at the net as the Golden Eagles piled up 14 blocks, and it couldn’t slow down star outside hitter Emily Elliott, who had a match-high 19 kills and four aces in the Tritons’ 25-21, 25-21, 25-17 loss – only their second of the season.

“It was just a really clean match by Cal State LA,” Young said. “Their hitting percentage was .364. Their physicality gave us a lot of issues at the net, and then their relentless defense and their blocking was just the difference. I don’t think we played poorly. I think they just made a couple more plays, went on some serving runs, and we couldn’t sustain.”

Students watch the NCAA Division II volleyball tournament on a projector screen in The Nosh

Students watch the UMSL volleyball team’s NCAA Division II quarterfinal match against Anderson University on Thursday afternoon in The Nosh at the Millennium Student Center. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

The Golden Eagles (24-10), who opened the season 2-6 but peaked when it counted in the postseason, went on to upend defending national champion West Texas A&M 25-23, 25-16, 22-25, 25-14 in Saturday’s final to claim the school’s first national title.

But sitting in the locker room at the UPMC Events Center after Friday’s loss, it wasn’t hard for fifth-year seniors such as Mya Elliott or Lexie Rang to keep perspective or appreciate just how much they’d accomplished during their college careers.

“When we came in here our freshman year, we couldn’t even make it to the conference tournament, and the national championship wasn’t even an option,” Elliott said. “So I think having this year as even a possibility is just amazing and being able to compete with the best teams.”

Rang added: “As a program, we should be really proud of where we were and how far we’ve come. Great group of girls every year, great coaching staff. They push us to be our best, and we fell short tonight, but I think we’ll be proud of the past five years. I think this season was really special and something to be really proud of.”

Of UMSL’s seven seniors, Elliott and Rang were the only ones to spend five years in the program, and they helped return the Tritons to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010 during their freshman season in 2019. They also helped UMSL pick up its first-ever NCAA Tournament win in the fall of 2021 when it defeated Lewis in five sets in an opening round match at Ferris State. But those accomplishments had nothing on the past two seasons.

Last season, UMSL finished 25-7, won a share of the Great Lakes Valley Conference regular-season title and claimed their first-ever regional crown, upsetting Barry University in the national quarterfinals.

Few could’ve foreseen the Tritons topping that this season, particularly after losing All-American outside hitter Charlotte Richards. But with sophomore setter Caitlin Bishop, the GLVC Player of the Year, directing the attack, UMSL won its first 30 matches, moved up as high as No. 2 in the national polls, won an outright GLVC championship and grabbed their second straight regional title.

After watching his team win the regional on its home court at the Mark Twain Athletic Center, Young clearly believed it was capable of taking the top prize.

“Prepare for three wins,” Young said at the post-match press conference.

UMSL appeared to be feeling a little pressure as the No. 2 seed taking on Anderson University in Thursday’s quarterfinal round. The Tritons fell behind 22-15 and couldn’t ever recover, dropping the opening set 25-19.

“We just told them to relax,” Young said afterward. “I think we were real tight. We talked a lot about our serve-receive and just continuing to communicate, giving ourselves second-chance opportunities. They blocked a lot of balls in Set 1. Set 2, not as many. So we made some more plays. I think it was a mindset thing more than anything.”

They put together a 10-4 run early in the second set and never really looked back in a 19-25, 25-20, 25-19, 25-21 victory over the Trojans. Rang registered a match-high 23 kills along with five blocks, Delaney Humm notched 16 kills and Hailey Flowers added 10 kills in the match. Bishop finished with 53 assists and Kylie Adams had a match-high 22 digs.

UMSL was hoping for a similar turnaround after dropping the first set on Friday, but Cal State LA kept the Tritons from getting into a rhythm or putting together any sustained runs.

The Golden Eagles set Emily Elliott all over the court, and she found success swinging from the outside or the back row, registering her 19 kills with only four attack errors. Ashley Dittman and Iane Henke each added 10 kills, and Haley Roundtree had six kills and four blocks.

Even in defeat, the Tritons earned praise from Cal State LA Coach Juan Figueroa.

“It was an amazing season,” he said in his team’s post-match press conference. “You look at their record, they only had one loss until tonight. Congratulations to them on everything they have done. I think they are one of three teams that came back to the Elite Eight, and that’s very special as well, so they should be very proud of themselves.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik