What a weekend for the UW-Eau Claire volleyball team. Faced with a match against the No. 1 seed in the Final Four, they held out for a win. Then they left no doubt about who the best team in the tournament was by winning it all.
The local reaction was immediate. More than 100 people responded to a post we sent out on social media congratulating the team late Saturday. Even more responded to the story posted later on our website. It was a well-deserved show of support for a team that made program history.
The numbers paint the picture. This was the Blugolds’ first volleyball title. The match included three tight games, but the Blugolds held on to take each one. The winning shot was kill number 13 for Arianna Barrett, who took home the title of the tournament’s most outstanding player along with the team title.
Think sports don’t matter? Take a look at the video from the winning point; it’s available in the story about the match on our website. The emotion is obvious. The players on the floor collapsed as their teammates rushed in to celebrate. You’ll rarely see people smiling so broadly while crying so hard.
Players called it “unbelievable,” but that’s clearly an overstatement. Look at the photos. That’s not disbelief that the team could win, but at the fact that after a Final Four loss in 2018, a pandemic and an extra year for several players, that the win finally arrived. It was the wait and the path that was beyond belief, not the team’s ability.
Listen to the words from coach Kim Wudi: “We often say, ‘You either win or you learn.’ We didn’t have an opportunity to win last year, so we learned. We learned every day. We went through a lot, a lot of team adversity, a lot of conflict. I’m not going to deny that. We worked through a lot of stuff. When you have highly competitive people who aren’t able to have that release of competing, there’s tension and there’s conflict. To work through that and to really be able to see everybody grow up, the maturity this team has is incredible.”
Wudi also made the point that no college team wins on its own. Sure, the players on the court are the ones who have to cross that final threshold, but they’re building on the work of teams that came before them.
The Blugolds aren’t exactly from a powerhouse conference in Division III volleyball. The first volleyball championship was won by UW-Whitewater back in 2002. The Warhawks also won in 2005. Sixteen years later, the Blugolds have made it three WIAC titles.
Those who have played competitively know any title is special. It’s the culmination of work that begins well before the first matchup of the season. The effort increases with each season. Every year adds its own weight. New skills, new techniques. And the other teams are learning, too. The hill gets harder to climb. The players who finish the season aren’t the same as they were when they started it.
Fans and parents can glimpse a bit of that. They’ve watched the work being put in. They’ve seen the highs and lows of the season. But it’s a far different thing to watch than to feel them in the visceral way members of the team do, when you’re the one who carries the high from a win or the gut-wrenching pain of a loss.
That’s why moments like Saturday night are so special. It’s obvious to everyone that something remarkable happened. For the team, though, it’s an instant lifelong memory. It’s a validation that can never be given, only earned.
The end of the season means inevitable change. Players graduate. They move on. Others remain, heading back to the bottom of the hill for another season of work. But no one on this team will ever forget what happened in St. Louis.
Congratulations to the Blugold volleyball team. It has been a genuine pleasure to watch this season unfold. It’s an honor to have covered your title-winning campaign. We hope you have time to savor the win and enjoy the fact you’ve accomplished something no one can ever take away.