Volleyball Comes from Behind Again in NCAA Tournament, Plays Calvin in the Regional Final

by Eva Dean Folkert

McKenna Otto poses for a portrait. Ryann Stutz poses for a portrait. Hope fans might start calling the Flying Dutch volleyball team the Cardiac Kids after watching them mount another comeback in NCAA Division III Volleyball Tournament on Friday night. Head coach Becky Schmidt will take it, but she surely would prefer a different nickname moving forward. Like Regional Champs. Especially since her team will play host and rival Calvin University in the NCAA regional final on Saturday night at 7 p.m.

No. 10-ranked Hope had to overcome a two-to-one set deficit for the second night in a row to defeat No. 14-ranked Muskingum University (Ohio) Fighting Muskies in the NCAA regional semifinals, 22-25, 25-19, 23-25, 25-21, 15-11, at VanNoord Arena in Grand Rapids. The Flying Dutch did the same the night before when they came back against Texas-Dallas in the regional quarterfinals to win in five sets.

With the victory, Hope avenged an earlier season straight-set loss to the Fighting Muskies at the Carnegie-Mellon Invitational on September 13.

"We have a ton of respect for Muskingum from when we played them earlier and some of the matches that we scouted," said Schmidt. "We just were really impressed by their defense and the versatility of some of their hitters. We're glad that we got another crack at them, and I'm really happy with the way that our team kind of turned the tables a little bit and kept them guessing a little bit more defensively and that we took a little bit more of the assertive role."

Hope is now 24-7 on the season. In its next NCAA match, the Flying Dutch will take on No. 3-ranked Calvin University, a winner in four sets over Ohio Northern University in Friday's other regional semifinal.  Hope has faced Calvin three times already this year, with the Knights having a 2-1 match advantage.

"We're ready to take a crack at (Calvin) just for the sake of moving on next to Cedar Rapids (where the national finals will be held)," said senior outside hitter Ryann Stutz of Kalamazoo. (Parchment HS).

"We like playing good volleyball," affirmed Schmidt. "That's what we've had the chance to do in this tournament so far. We're looking forward to the chance to do that again tomorrow night."

Hope's Post-Match Press Conference

Every set against Muskingum was a verifiable seesaw battle. Rarely did one team hold more than a four-point advantage. If one of the two teams would go on a run, and then the other would often fight back to tie the score. The back-and-forth was enough to cause whiplash, but the Flying Dutch stayed within themselves and looked to capitalize on every opportunity when they had one. 

"The times where it was back and forth, we had a lot of errors in the nets or serving out, but we went point by point," said Stutz, pictured left, who tallied a career-high 20 kills. "I think we just stopped thinking about what we were stressed out about and what wasn't working. We were just trying to focus on what was. And Coach, before the match, had given us a really good idea of what was going to work for us and how to play to our strengths. I think we were just really insistent and just went with the ball and didn't really think about the perfect kill or block."

"(Ryann) has really been stepping up," Schmidt added. "And I feel like this is a culmination of four years, times where she's had to grind and had to work through stuff. I feel like right now she's just embracing the opportunity that she has and I just couldn't be more proud of the way that she's handled that."

Sophomore middle hitter McKenna Otto of Wheaton, Illinois (Wheaton North HS), pictured right, led Hope with 23 kills, also a career-high, on a .455 hitting percentage. She defers credit to "great teammates" for that remarkable stat line. "They tell me where to hit and they trust me enough to swing," she said.

Adding double-digits kills was sophomore Ana Grunewald of Grand Rapids (East Grand Rapids HS) and sophomore Molly Ligon of Beverly Hills (Birmingham Seaholm) with 12 kills apiece.

On defense, sophomore Grace Pettinger of Mt. Vernon, Iowa (Mt. Vernon HS) and senior Gabbi Vachon of Grand Rapids (Jenison HS) made 23 and 22 digs, respectively.

In directing play at the net, sophomore Tracy Westra of Clarendon Hills, Illinois (Timothy Christian HS) and sophomore Adair Cutler of East Lansing (Lansing Christian HS) had 33 and 31 assists, respectively.

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