Matt Reinsel didn’t hide from it.
The senior setter for the Carthage men’s volleyball team knew the narrative, and he wasn’t going to downplay it after the Red Men lost a tough five-set match to UC Santa Cruz, 26-24, 25-21, 24-26, 20-25, 15-6, on Friday afternoon at Tarble Arena in an NCAA Division III Tournament regional semifinal.
Ranked No. 1 in the Division III coaches poll for much of the season — Carthage was No. 2 in the latest one, released Tuesday — the Red Men finished with a splendid 23-3 record but fell short of where they wanted to reach.
Postseason struggles continue
Carthage ended its season with two losses, last weekend at home in the championship match of the Midwest Collegiate Volleyball League Tournament, and Friday in the NCAA Tournament after receiving an at-large bid and being named a regional host.
Over the last four seasons, Carthage has fashioned a 95-10 record, a ridiculous winning percentage of .905. But the Red Men haven’t advanced further than the NCAA Tournament quarterfinals.
His standout career over, Reinsel calmly owned the program’s postseason failures.
“I’d actually say the past couple years, and in my four years here, pretty much every season has kind of ended like that,” he said. “I think we have never quite met our potential in the postseason. Credit to Santa Cruz for playing an amazing game, but I think our team is equally, if not more talented, player by player.
“I just think that we’ve got to figure out something between the ears to turn it on in the postseason in the future (Reinsel will be with the program next season as an assistant).”
Fellow senior Kai Cromwell, an outside hitter, agreed.
“It’s ended a little shorter than what we’ve hoped every year I’ve ever been here,” he said. “... I agree that we’re a more talented team than most teams in the country, and it’s just a mental thing that it comes down to at the end of the year.”
While certainly disappointed, Carthage coach L.J. Marx took a bigger-picture approach than his two seniors.
“If you lose in the NCAA Tournament, it’s perceived as a bad season, but we’re one of the top 14 teams (to) make it this far,” Marx said. “So you have to accept the fact that only one team gets to win from here on out.
“The vast majority are going to finish with a loss.”
Regional championship tonight
For now, Santa Cruz is still alive and will play 15th-ranked Fontbonne (26-2) in a regional final at 6 p.m. tonight at Tarble. The winner advances to the Final Four at Kean University in Union, N.J., next weekend.
While the Banana Slugs are unranked and have just a 19-16 record, they’re obviously a talented team. Carthage hosted Santa Cruz on Feb. 9, and that match also went five sets, with the Red Men prevailing.
The difference Friday was Santa Cruz senior middle blocker Raymond Cascio. Moved to the left side, the 6-foot-7 Cascio put down a remarkable 27 kills, the third-highest single-match total in NCAA Division III Tournament history.
“We couldn’t do much to slow him down,” Marx said.
Senior opposite Evan Walsh nearly matched Cascio blow for blow, leading the Red Men with 19 kills and 14 digs.
Junior outside hitter Braeden Waumans totaled 14 kills, eight digs and four blocks, sophomore outside hitter Matt Slivinski had 13 kills and eight digs, sophomore middle blockers Eric Winter and Parker Connolly combined for nine blocks and Reinsel dished out 50 assists in the final match of his stellar career.
After falling down 2-0, the Red Men battled back, and a key point in the third game seemed to provide a spark.
Down 19-17, the Red Men battled through a long point and pulled within 19-18 when it finally ended via an attack error by the Banana Slugs. Later in the game, Walsh put the Red Men into position to win with a pair of kills for a 24-23 lead.
After Cascio staved off one set point with a kill, Waumans finished it off with back-to-back kills, the last one set up by a huge Walsh dig off a Cascio kill attempt.
In the fourth game, the Red Men used a 5-0 run to go up 12-9 and headed into the decisive fifth set with the Tarble crowd roaring and momentum on their side.
But Santa Cruz stayed composed.
“After the fourth set, they were on a run,” Cascio said. “They had some momentum, because they won the past two. ... We just talked about how this is the moment that we’ve been working towards.”
UC Santa Cruz seals victory
For whatever reason, Carthage wasn’t nearly as composed in the fifth set.
The Red Men made six attack errors and a service error, as the Banana Slugs cruised to a 10-2 lead.
“The fifth set got the best of us,” Marx said. “I think the situation got to us a little bit on the mental side of things. We poured a lot into coming back in (Games) 3 and 4. I don’t think we ran out of gas, I think it just got the best of us.”
And there was no comeback, as another terrific season just came up short.
“It stinks, because it’s only our third (loss) of the season,” Marx said. “When you don’t lose a lot, it becomes harder when it happens, because it’s not normal. But in the grand scheme of life, these guys have accomplished some amazing things away from the volleyball court, and this is just one piece of those four years.”