For the first time in program history, UW-Eau Claire volleyball will play for a national championship Saturday night.
The Blugolds fought their way back from a 2-1 set deficit, securing a 15-13 victory in the fifth to upset top-seeded Juniata in the NCAA Tournament semifinals Friday night in St. Louis.
"We scored a lot of points for them in that first set so we wanted to make sure that we came back and played our game," Blugold coach Kim Wudi said. "Juniata, since I was a player in Division III has been an exceptional, exceptional program. It was an honor to play them tonight and it is really special that our teams met up in the Final Four. ... I couldn't be more excited about this. I'm proud of our team."
The Blugolds fell 25-20 in the first set, struggling to deal with Juniata's Victoria Taylor. She had ten kills in that set alone, forcing UW-EC to change up its defense. That started with minor adjustments before it became clear the squad would have to change its entire approach to defend her.
Those improvements helped drive the comeback effort, which began with a tight 30-28 victory in the second set.
"That was huge," Wudi said. "I think anytime you go down 2-0 that's a really tough place to be. To get that second set, it gave us a whole lot of confidence. We don't talk a whole lot about momentum. That's a very scary strategy to have when you try and ride momentum, but we really felt like it was important after winning that set that we stayed with them, we stayed with Juniata."
After falling behind again when Juniata took the third 25-20, UW-Eau Claire held its foe to a .047 hitting percentage in the fourth for its best defensive showing of the evening. A 25-19 Blugold victory forced the decisive fifth.
UW-Eau Claire never trailed in the fifth set, getting out to an early 4-1 advantage. The Eagles forced a tie at 6-6 and 10-10, with the Blugolds securing three straight points after the latter equalizer. Juniata put together one final push to cut the deficit to 13-12, but the Blugolds ended the Eagles’ season by securing the final two. Kendra Baierl had the kill that ignited the celebration.
"I think the hardest fight is over," junior outside hitter Jordan Witzel said. "Now that we have battled all the way here we can play our game."
Witzel had a team-leading 16 kills, while Arianna Barrett had 15 and Baierl 14. Barrett had a double-double with 12 digs. Makenzie Bachmann recorded 34 digs and Taylor Scalia added 25.
The team's final match of the season will come against Calvin, a program that defeated the Blugolds in the Final Four in 2018. The Knights, a six seed, pulled off two upsets in St. Louis to reach the title bout. They bested Trinity in five sets Thursday and Clairemont Mudd Scripps Friday.
Calvin, champions of the MIAA, is 32-3 and riding a seven-match win streak. Two of the Knights' three losses came against Hope, a squad the Blugolds defeated in the regional finals. Action begins from the campus of Washington University in St. Louis at 7 p.m.
"All season we've said play every game like its the national championship," sophomore setter Charlie Nelson said. "I don't know how to better prepare for the national championship than that."