There wasn’t much that separated the second-ranked University of Chicago and fourth-ranked Carthage women’s volleyball teams Sunday.
So it made sense that their NCAA Division III Tournament regional final went to a fifth set.
It was that close.
In the end, it was the Reds who had just a little bit more than the Maroons in a thrilling 24-26, 25-21, 25-17, 21-25, 15-12 victory at the Ratner Center in Chicago that improved them to 30-3 and punched their ticket to the Elite Eight at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, from Thursday through Saturday.
The eight teams remaining were re-seeded for the Elite Eight, and Carthage received the No. 4 seed. The Reds will face fifth-seeded Bowdoin (Maine), which enters the Elite Eight with a 21-7 record, at 3 p.m. Thursday.
Bowdoin was not ranked in the top 25 in the latest NCAA Division III coaches poll but did receive four votes.
The winner of the Carthage-Bowdoin match will play the winner of the match between top-seeded Emory (Ga.) and eighth-seeded Clarkson (N.Y.) in the national semifinals at 5 p.m. Friday.
The national championship is scheduled for 7 p.m. Saturday.
Carthage is one of three teams left ranked in the the top five. Emory is No. 1, while third-seeded Calvin (Mich.) is No. 3.
Second-seeded Johns Hopkins (Md.), meanwhile, is No. 6, sixth-seeded Trinity (Texas) is No. 7 and seventh-seeded Saint Benedict (Minn.) is No. 13.
But at this point in the tournament, rankings don’t mean much, anyway. Besides, the Reds have already knocked off two top-five teams to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since reaching the national semifinals in 2015.
“Just an amazing group of young ladies,” Carthage coach Leanne Ulmer said in a post-match press conference following Sunday’s regional final win over Chicago.
“I’m just incredibly blessed to be our leader. They just took us on the best ride. The resolve that they showed out there, the fight, what a match. Chicago, all the credit goes to them. I don’t think two teams could’ve played any harder. They’re a talented team, they’re well-coached, they’re spirited. It was a battle. I just kept thinking, ‘Man, this is just a battle.’
“Every point was so hard to get. Every point was stuck, and people were getting after it. It just took everything they had. After a five-setter (Saturday), it took everything they had to come back and do this again. It just talks a lot about this team and their resolve and their ability to get this done.
“... I’m just one very, very proud coach.”
Trailing 12-11 in the decisive fifth set against Chicago, the Reds scored four of the last five points to punch their ticket to Cedar Rapids.
“It’s absolutely incredible,” said senior outside hitter Megan Behrendt, who totaled 17 kills and 22 digs Sunday.
“We’ve been dreaming about this since the first day we came in. We’ve been working toward that goal in the weight room, on the court, off the court, staying positive throughout it.”
Fellow senior outside hitter Shannon Kebisek had 13 kills, 17 digs and three aces against the Maroons.
“Every single person on this team has contributed,” she said. “Whether it’s our starters or the last person off the bench, everyone has contributed.
“I’ve seen it ever since the first day of practice. Ever since we stepped into that gym, I literally looked around and I just said, ‘We can win a national championship. Easy.’ Like, ‘We can do this.’ I have faith in us.”
Kebisek was then needled by her teammates at the podium about using the word “easy,” but she laughed and clarified what she meant.
“Not easy, but we have our eye on the prize,” she said. “I feel like we are such a cohesive unit that there’s no stopping us.”
In Sunday’s decisive fifth set, Behrendt started the rally with a kill, followed by another from junior right side Andrea Kozak (seven kills, six blocks). After a Chicago hitting error put the Reds on the brink, Kozak and junior right side Haley Horner (17 kills, five blocks) slammed the door shut with a double block.
Carthage nearly ended the matter in four sets, but a furious rally fell short as the Maroons (28-4) knotted the match at 2-2.
The Reds fell behind, 11-4, but battled all the way back to even and eventually took their first lead of the fourth set at 16-15 on a block-kill by Kozak and Horner.
From there, the set was a back-and-forth affair until Chicago forced the fifth set with a 4-0 scoring run. An ace by Chicago’s Temilade Adekoya (11 kills, 18 digs) sealed the set for the Maroons.
Other leaders for the Reds were senior setter Ellie LeCount (60 assists, four aces, 11 digs), senior libero Laura de Rosales (23 digs), junior setter Autumn McGee (12 digs) and sophomore libero Megan Dawrant (four aces).
Follow the Kenosha News print edition, as well as on Facebook and Twitter and at kenoshanews.com, for full coverage of Carthage’s tournament run.
- Dan Truttschel and Mike Johnson