Gene's Blog: Life's a holiday for Tommie Volleyball
November 13, 2012
Tommie volleyball needed a leap of faith to help win last weekend's regional tournament. (Greg Smith photo)
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose...
For Division III college volleyball teams, it's a good thing when you're still competing as the local radio stations break out the Christmas songs.
Coach Thanh Pham and his St. Thomas squad are walking in that winter wonderland again in 2012. The Tommies will go shopping this week on a 551-mile trek to Hope College on the banks of Lake Michigan for some elusive NCAA hardware.
Frankincense and myrrh are probably on the NCAA banned substance list, but St. Thomas' wish list is topped by NCAA gold.
The No. 8-ranked Tommies (37-1) play unranked Clarkson (N.Y.) (31-6) in Thursday's quarterfinals at the national tournament in Holland, Mich. The UST-Clarkson match will start at 12:30 p.m. (11:30 Minnesota time), with the winner playing Friday at 5 p.m. (4 p.m. Minnesota time).
St. Thomas and Christopher Newport (Va.) are the lone programs to make the eight-team national tournament in each of the last three seasons. In fact, Pham will take his third team to nationals with a third different setter in three years. Setters Emily Foster (2010) and Ashley Maher (2011) were seniors in their nationals appearances.
Pham isn't looking past Clarkson. His Tommies are 0-2 in the last two national tournaments, so Thursday's match is his main focus. In general, he said St. Thomas can compete with any remaining teams.
"If we play like we know we can, we should be in every match," Pham said. "Hopefully the way we've battled back so often in the playoffs so far will give us confidence as we go into nationals."
St. Thomas hasn't lost since Sept. 7. It brings a school-record 32-match winning streak to Michigan, including an 11-0 run to the conference title and a 5-0 record in the postseason.
"It's crazy how the pressure builds when you have a long winning streak," Pham said. "But this team has just shown a special ability to find a way to win."
PHOTO: Thanh Pham (Greg Smith photo)
The Tommies have already set a conference record for best season winning percentage. The 37 wins have broken a school record for season victories and is one shy of the all-time conference record set in 1996 by St. Olaf, a third-place NCAA finisher.
St. Thomas squads have been ranked in the AVCA Top-25 all 11 polls this season and for 92 of the last 93 consecutive polls.
The 2012 Tommies rank among the national leaders in attack percentage (.274) and kills per set (10.8). They are just the second team in the last 15 seasons to make a 13-0 run through the conference regular season and playoffs. (Concordia-Moorhead did it in 2006).
The Toms have been consistent force in the upper Midwest over the last decade. In the last two seasons alone, St. Thomas is 2-2 against Concordia-Moorhead, and 60-0 against all other opponents from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa and Nebraska.
Last Saturday night, the Tommies lost the first set and won the last three to beat nationally-ranked St. Benedict for the third time this season and punch their ticket to Michigan. After an 0-6 record in the program's first six region championship matches, St. Thomas volleyball has won the last three region titles.
The Tommies are 22-0 in three-set decisions, 10-0 in four setters, and 5-1 in matches decided in five. They are 16-0 on neutral courts and 12-0 at home, and rank among the Division III leaders.
The Toms’ only defeat came nearly 11 weeks ago in five sets. Then No. 4-ranked Emory (Ga.) used a 16-14 score in the deciding fifth set after UST had won the first and third sets.
St. Thomas’ five-set victories include a comeback road win at nationally-ranked Wartburg; notable comebacks in the MIAC playoffs against Carleton (down 10-4 in set five) and No. 24-ranked St. Benedict (down 2-1 in sets); and a rally from a 2-1 set deficit to win in the NCAA playoff opener against Cornell. This month's 5-0 playoff run pushed UST's home-court win streak to 28.
In the regional semifinals, St. Thomas also scored a 3-0 win over UW-Eau Claire. That extended St. Thomas three-season winning streak to 17 against the rugged WIAC Conference.
Pham already has been named AVCA Region and MIAC Coach of the Year in 2012. His 10-year UST record of 285-63 (.819 win %) includes a 99-11 mark in conference regular-season play and a 100-13 overall record over the last three seasons.
Nicole Potts (Mike Ekern photo)
Sophomore Kelly Foley, the National Freshman of the Year in 2011, has been named conference Player of the Year and regional tournament Most Outstanding Performer. Foley has played in 74 career matches and is hitting above .350 with 878 kills and 214 blocks. She ranks among the Division III leaders in hitting this season at .375.
Junior OH Paige Brimeyer also made All-Region, and senior All-America libero Kaiti Wachter made honorable mention. Sophomore Jill Greenfield joined Foley, Brimeyer and Wachter on the All-MIAC team.
Wachter has 2,890 career digs and played in all 147 career matches. Brimeyer is hitting .350 this season with nearly 2.5 kills per set.
Greenfield has 30 double-doubles in kills and digs in 75 career matches, and UST is 28-2 in those matches.
Soph Sara Atkinson and juniors Mackenzie Piechowski, Nicole Potts and McKenna Reagan have made solid contributions. Junior Katie Maher and freshman Sarah Kosbab have shared setter duties.
With all of its postseason experience, it's a young roster in age. St. Thomas has just one senior in its top 10 rotation.
The Tommies are 85-1 over the last three seasons in matches when they hit above .200. In last weekend's regional, they hit .346 against Eau Claire and .324 in the pivotal fourth and fifth sets against Cornell and St. Ben's.
Teams that make deep postseason runs usually have the whole package: balance, depth, experience, good luck and an elite playmaker. In the Tommies' case, that difference maker is Foley.
The athletic, 5-foot-11 middle is difficult to stop. St. Thomas is 17-1 in her career in games when she records 15 or more kills. She hit .390 in last weekend's regional with 48 kills. The last Cretin-Derham Hall grad to hit so well during a Tommie postseason run was a guy named Mauer, Jake, who brought home an NCAA baseball championship in 2001.
PHOTO: Kelly Foley (Greg Smith photo)
Pham was asked what put the 2012 Tommies over the top in winning the conference and region crowns.
"Not to take away from all the talent and contributions up and down our roster," Pham explained, "but the difference for us this season is that we have a Kelly Foley, and nobody else does. Kelly is a special player."
Fans hum Christmas tunes. The coach sings Kelly Foley's praises. Tommie volleyball is heading to a place called Hope for the final weekend of the season. Yes, it's the most wonderful time of the year.