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Freemen National Runner-ups
The Providence men’s volleyball squad showed they had something to prove at this year’s National Volleyball Conference Federation (NVCF) Championships, as they fought their way to the tournament’s finals (after only being given the #13 seed heading into the tournament).
The Freemen began the tournament - where all matches were best-of-three sets- in round-robin pool play. The #13 seed also ensured the squad would face their toughest opening round competition in recent memory.
However, Providence was up to the challenge Thursday night and cruised through their first two matches in convincing fashion. The Freemen knocked off #37 Edinboro University, from Edinboro, Pennsylvania; 25-15, 25-14 and followed with a 25-15, 25-20 two-set sweep over Augustuna College, from Rock Island, Illinois.
The final match of the round-robin face off against SUNY Brockport (Brockport, New York) was an intense battle that would decide first place in the pool. The winner would move directly into the next round, while the loser would have to play in an early morning Challenge Match in order to slide back into the gold bracket.
SUNY got the edge early on, as the Freemen appeared nervous to open the match and allowed SUNY to grab a 26-24 in a first set win. But an emotional Freemen side emerged out of the set, and, inspired by strong middle play from Josh Friesen and Steve Schapansky, Providence was able to take control in the final two sets to win them 25-14, 15-10.
The win advanced Providence into Friday’s Power Pool matches where two of the three teams in each pool would move into Saturday’s Gold Bracket. The first match pitted the Freemen against #3 Azuza Pacific University (Azuza, California). Providence began the match on fire and showed off strong serve reception throughout it, en route to a two-set sweep of Azuza (25-16, 25-20).
Conference rivals #5 University of Wisconsin Eau Claire (Eau Claire, Wisconsin) were the next opponents on the Freemen’s schedule. Eau Claire had already defeated Providence three times this season, and they were able to do so again in a battle where the Freemen seemed to already have their minds on the next round of the tournament. Eau Claire took the match with ease in two straight sets, 25-15 and 25-13.
But one win was enough to move the Freemen into Saturday’s Gold Bracket of 16 teams. And the loss to Eau Claire meant Providence would have to face the defending National Champions Sonoma State University, from Sonoma, California, in the opening round match.
Providence played with confidence to open the first set and cruised to a 25-19 set win. However, Sonoma showed why they are the defending champs, and the next two sets featured an epic back-and-forth tout between two of the tournament’s heavyweights that, point-by-point, would draw in the crowd until the match played host to hundreds of spectators.
The second set saw multiple lead changes, but Sonoma was able to clinch the match late with a 25-23 score. Sonoma’s win forced a third set where both squads had two match-point opportunities. But the Freemen were able to put on a clutch performance in the final point rally using great block coverage and a spike that setter Paul Warkentin ripped off a Sonoma blocker’s arm to win the set 18-16, and move into the final eight.
The #29 seed Western Washington University (Bellingham, Washington) were the Freemen’s quarter-final opponent. Providence came out flat to begin the match, clearly struggling to get their emotions and focus under wraps following the epic win earlier in the day.
The poor play allowed Western Washington to jump out to a 20-12 lead. However, a key time out helped re-energize the squad and the team’s character shone through as they put on a volleyball clinic to finish the set and sneak out the 25-23 win. The two squads became locked in a tight battle throughout the second match, but Providence was once again able to finish when it counted, as they took the set 28-26.
In the semi-finals Providence faced off against the tournament’s ‘Cinderella’ squad from Kutztown, Pennsylvania. But #32 Kutztown University didn’t seem to have anything left in the tank for the Freemen, as Providence cruised to a 25-16, 25-19 two-set sweep.
But the Freemen weren’t prepared to lie down, and they regrouped to keep themselves in the second set early on. Strong side-out hitting and a couple of missed serves from LaCrosse saw the two teams locked at the midway point of the set. However, LaCrosse was able to score the occasional point while serving and Providence struggled to keep pace, allowing LaCrosse to pull out to the 25-20 set win to end the Freemen’s miraculous NCVF tournament run.
But Providence’s strong play, character wins, and impressive on-court communication had head coach Jason Peters proud of his squad’s accomplishments and run to the championship game.
“I am extremely proud of our group, and the young men have worked hard all season,” coach Peters says. “We had our ups and downs, but through everything this group stayed positive and showed a work ethic of a championship team. We had tremendous leadership from our older players, and the team chemistry was as good as I have seen in my years coaching at Providence. We overcame so much this past week, with so much pressure on us to perform, and I am thrilled to have been a part of this team.”
“I look forward to trying again next year...unfinished business.”
Written by: Kaiten Critchlow
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