Facing a chance to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time in eight years, the Valparaiso volleyball team could never get on track Sunday afternoon.
The No. 2 Crusaders were able to take a set from top-seeded Milwaukee, but could never get anything going late as the Panthers pulled away in each of the last two sets to win 25-20, 23-25, 25-20, 25-18.
The loss represents the third time Valparaiso has come up short in the title game since joining the Horizon League in 2007.
“(Milwaukee) had the momentum the entire match,” Valparaiso coach Carin Avery said. “We were always clawing to get back in. They’d go on a four-point run and maybe we’d be able to get it down to two, but then they’d go on another run again.”
The teams entered the championshp having split a pair of matches during the regular-season with the road team winning on both occasions. The Panthers set the tone early, jumping out to a 5-1 lead and then holding the Crusaders at bay for the rest of the set. Valparaiso got within 21-20, but Milwaukee scored the final four points.
“We just weren’t in the flow of our game in any aspect,” Avery said. “When you’re playing for a championship, you can’t have that.”
The Crusaders responded with a strong start in the second game before holding on late for the win. The script was the same in the last two sets, as the Panthers were the first to double digits on both occasions and never looked back with a win in the third set and clinching the match in the fourth set.
“Give a lot of credit to Milwaukee for keeping us from ever getting comfortable,” Avery said. “They just kept coming after us. The serve/pass game wins for you and they totally won the serve/pass today.”
The loss brings a close to yet another successful 20-plus win season for the Crusaders (25-8). Valparaiso is one of just 11 Division I programs to have won 20 or more games since 2002 when Avery took over the program. The Crusaders won their first eight matches of the season and had wins over Big Ten foe Iowa as well as NCAA tournament participants Milwaukee and IUPUI.
“Losing the last game doesn’t take anything away from the fantastic year that we had,” Avery said. “We beat some really great teams this year and we can’t look past that when looking at this season.”
Five seniors played their final match for the Crusaders, including LaPorte native Ariel Cudney as well as All-Horizon League honorees Ellen Vanden Berg and Sarah Dooms. Each of the three players finished their careers in the top five in program history of various statistical categories.
“This is really a tough loss of a great group of seniors,” Avery said. “They have given themselves to this program and this university and wholeheartedly love each other. You don’t always find groups like that. It’s an extremely big loss for us.”