It’s hard to start this recap, solely because what transpired in Lawrence was a battle of two wills.
One belonged to Creighton, a volleys team who obliterated their respective conference and fully expected to host this game at DJ Sokol Arena, a team whose RPI finished in the top 15, a team whose offensive firepower hits you like bottle rocket made of TNT, a team laden with talent up and down the roster, each of whom believed they proved their mettle enough throughout the year that they belonged at home tonight.
The other belonged to Northern Iowa, a team who got swept in Omaha to start the season, a team whose defense was predicated on tossing a bucket of water on a bottle rocket made of TNT, a defense laden with seniors who learned how to grit out tough wins over the course of tough Mo Valley conference slate, a team built to run deep in the NCAA tournament.
These two former Valley foes set a stage that finished with nails cleanly chewed off, blood pouring from fingertips, knees weak with the waning and waxing of every ball that touched the hardwood at the Horejsi Center.
My, the crowd was otherworldly. In this bandbox of a gym came the deafening echoes of impassioned cheers from the respective fanbases. When the match began, it was hard to hear the usual bad jokes and bizarre thoughts that usually permeate from my mind, the Creighton pep band blaring on to my left, the Northern Iowa cheerleaders screaming “U-N-I Panthers!” to my right. The place shook. The first set seemed to linger for far longer than any volleyball game I’ve been witness to. Creighton dropped the first two points, communication clearly an issue early on, but then settled into a groove. Soon, Lydia Dimke got rolling, feeding Marysa Wilkinson and Jaali Winters with beautiful sets, the two superstar hitters destroying the UNI defense in the first set.
Winters was clearly on her game early on, working angles and forcing the Panther defense to scramble into position, only to blow it by them. Wilkinson did much of the same, showing a new vigor and spirit as she pummeled the volleyball into oblivion. Working from the outside, it appeared that they found a soft spot in that stingy Panther defense.
There’s an old adage in volleyball that Coach Booth alluded to after the game, that it’s both good and bad that volleyball always starts at zero. The ability to build on a lead throughout a set is how you win, but a team needs to finish the set in order to move on.
In the second set, the Panther defense finally began to show its teeth. The tandem of Piper Thomas, Kayla Haneline, and Lindsey Schulz. The three seemed to navigate the net, finding holes in their defense, and jumped at any attack by the Bluejays. This allowed Northern Iowa to keep pace with Creighton throughout the second set, but the might of Winters, the defensive prowess of Lauren Smith, and a timely service ace by Megan Ballenger quelled any threat of a UNI win.
What simmers in a locker room when a deficit looms can go multiple ways. Slipping into surrender can be an easy way out; to defer to the other team’s talents. A phony sense of optimism can ring through the halls, but will inevitable echo hollow.
UNI took the route of “fuck it, let’s finish what we started.”
Coming out of the locker room into the third set, there was a sense of superiority emanating from the Jays sideline. There was a bit of swagger, a punishing attitude that would sully any BIG EAST opponent. A sweep was imminent, just 25 points away, and the Jays had knocked around their former Valley foe.
UNI had other ideas.
After a Taryn Kloth kill that put the Jays a point away from moving on, at 24-22, it appeared that the long road back to Cedar Falls was imminent.
And thus began a run in volleyball history that onlookers won’t soon forget.
Piper Thomas proceeded to go absolutely bonkers, collecting 3 kills in the final 4 points for UNI, with a kill by Bri Weber mixed in. The Jays had no answer, and thus conceded the set. 2-1 Jays, but no big deal, right?
Well, not exactly.
The fourth set was absolutely dominated by UNI. Their blocks, their digs, everything was heroic. What would fall in as an easy point in the BIG EAST for the Jays suddenly became contested. Wilkinson and Winters were suddenly neutralized, everything they attempted to put over the net was sent down with ferocious, perfectly timed jump blocks by the Panther’s front.
It was astounding how much the momentum had shifted, a point away from everyone packing up and making plans for tomorrow, to a fifth set after Northern Iowa completely outclassed Creighton to the tune of 25-14.
The Horejsi Center swelled with a suffocating tension. The anticipation of the first serve was met with the shrieks from a mohawked man with purple and gold overalls, one shoulder strap drooped at his side. The Creighton fans were stressed, uncertain of what they’d seen, a little gunshy to cause a ruckus. Tension be damned, the momentum remained with the Panthers.
What came next was the culmination of pressure and regression. Kenzie Crawford, who has been phenomenal defensively all night, especially when she subbed out Taryn Kloth - who was having an off night - stepped to serve the ball to start this fifth set. There’s a great deal of weight that comes with that opening serve - you want to make your presence felt early and you want to shift momentum in your direction - so it’s to be expected that the opening serve may be short, or long, or wide. The rest of the season sort of hangs on the opening serve. That’s a lot of pressure, and Crawford had it hanging around.
Here’s how she looked right before she served:
She lofted the ball high over the net, it danced in the air, and landed softly in UNI territory. Panic ensued and the Piper Thomas swung but was met with a Bluejay wall of doom, the first point going to Creighton. Bri Weber would follow this up after another Crawford serve by putting it... wide?
The ball was in. After looking at it on replay it was quite clear that it was in, but it was called out and the Panthers couldn’t challenge because the NCAA is an organization that prefers chaos to order and fairness.
Alas, the Jays were up 2-0.
Crawford floats one again, it’s attacked by Piper Thomas, but Megan Ballenger denied her at the net. In a game to 15, the Jays were already up 3-0, and UNI was reeling. Panther coach Bobbi Peterson quickly called a timeout and tried to regroup, but the momentum pendulum was deep in Bluejay blue.
It was close. It was beautiful. It was everything you’d expect in postseason volleyball. Northern Iowa would eventually close the gap and tie it up at 7 all, only for Creighton to squeak out a lead. This happened three times, the final time coming at 12-12 - only for Bri Weber to serve it into the net.
Amanda Foje would enter the game to serve, and she, much like Kenzie Crawford, was absolutely cold blooded as she served up an ace.
14-12. Match point. All the volleys.
The game would end on a Megan Ballenger/Lauren Smith combo block, a fitting end to one of the best, gutsiest, fall on your face volleyball match I’d ever seen.
Creighton, with the win, will face Kansas at 6:30pm Friday night.