Volleyball Makes a Comeback to Survive Five-Set Thriller in First Round of NCAA Tournament

by Eva Dean Folkert

Adair Cutler makes a dig. In the first round of the 2019 NCAA Division III Championship on Thursday afternoon, the No. 10-ranked Hope College volleyball team ran into an opponent on a roll. Unranked University of Texas-Dallas had won its last eight matches in a row, and early in its first-ever meeting against the Flying Dutch, it looked as if the Comets might make it nine. Texas-Dallas, champions of the American Southwest Conference, had jumped out to a 2-1 set lead and controlled the match's momentum. Or seemed to.

Instead, Hope survived the temporary scare, came back to dominate in the last two sets, and won the five-set thriller at Calvin University in Grand Rapids, 23-25, 25-23, 17-25, 25-17, 15-11.

The win moves the Flying Dutch to a 23-7 record and into the regional semifinals tomorrow, Friday, November 15 at 5:30 p.m. versus No. 14-ranked Muskingum University (Ohio — 26-3), a winner in four sets over Wittenberg University (Ohio). Hope was defeated by Muskingum, 3-0, back on Septmber 13.

"Hats off to Texas-Dallas on a great match," said Hope head coach Becky Schmidt. "They fought hard and they did some things offensively that gave our defense some fits. I was really pleased with our team and how we settled down and settled in to be able to pick up the defensive effort to get a few more blocks, make their offense think a little bit. I think a big part of that was helped by some service pressure that we saw in the fourth and fifth sets especially. I'm just really proud of our team for not backing down and staying aggressive throughout the match."

The Flying Dutch didn't own a lead in the match until they went up 16-15 in the second set, which they eventually won by scoring the sets last six points in a row. In the third set, Hope pressed hard to play catch up against the Comets the entire time; the Flying Dutch just could not find its favored rhythm.

Photo by Adair Cutler by Lynne Powe

"They challenged us," said middle hitter McKenna Otto of Wheaton, Illinois (Wheaton North HS). "They were picking stuff up (digs) so it was really crucial that we just communicated what was open on the other side of the court." 

That Otto observation was proven in this stat: The Comets beat the Flying Dutch in digs, 65-59.

As for Schmidt, what was it that she told her team going into the fourth set that righted the rest of the way for the Flying Dutch?

"(I told them) just go out there and have some fun and enjoy the match and enjoy the opportunity as well as have the knowledge and understanding that we've been in this position before and that we have what it takes to be able to come back in those types of situations," she said.

Her Flying Dutch listened, loosened up and responded. The fourth set saw Hope take more confident swings and put Texas-Dallas back on its heels with consistency. Sophomore Otto said, "We kind of just decided to let loose and play about our game, our volleyball that we know. And it definitely got more fun when we did that. So, I'd say that was a major shift in the momentum for us."

"It kind of got to a point where we said, 'All right, let's give it all we got. This is all we have left and let's play free and played together," added sophomore junior Adair Cutler of East Lansing (Lansing Christian HS).

In the fifth and deciding set, Hope took a five-point lead at 9-4 after sophomore libero Grace Pettinger of Mt. Vernon, Iowa (Mt. Vernon HS) recorded two service aces in a row of her five for the match. Cutler added two service aces of her own to give Hope a 13-5 lead, but the Comets would not back down. Texas-Dallas reeled off the next four points to make the set's score, 13-9, and caused a Hope timeout.

After the break, the Flying Dutch got the two points they needed to end the set and match on two kills by sophomore outside hitter Molly Ligon of Beverly Hills (Seaholm HS).

"I was really impressed with the poise that our players played with today," Schmidt offered.

Otto led the team in kills with 17 on a team-best .424 hitting percentage. Ligon added 11 kills while hitting .296.

Cutler and sophomore setter Tracy Westra of Clarendon Hills, Illinois (Timothy Christian HS) tied for the most assists with 16.

Hope had three players in double-digit digs: Pettinger with 15 and senior libero Gabbi Vachon of Grand Rapids (Jenison HS) and sophomore outside hitter Ana Grunewald of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids HS) with 10 apiece.

Hope.edu | PO Box 9000, Holland, Michigan 49422