MARQUETTE - It took five grueling sets, but the Northern Michigan University volleyball team knocked off its first opponent of the GLIAC tournament with a 25-20, 22-25, 25-23, 24-26, 18-16 quarterfinals win over Findlay University on Wednesday at Vandament Arena in Marquette.
With the win, the No. 3-seeded Wildcats (15-3 in the GLIAC, 23-9 overall) advance to semifinals to play No. 2 Ashland at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Grand Valley State. The top-seeded Lakers host No. 5 Northwood in the first semifinal on at 5 p.m. with Saturday's winners meeting at 4 p.m. on Sunday at the GVSU Fieldhouse in Allendale for the GLIAC Championship.
"It's going to be such a good weekend," NMU senior Kalli Herron said. "We're going to come out really motivated and really intense and hopefully come out with two more wins."
Northern Michigan University assistant volleyball coach Inga Kurgonaite hugs senior Sarah Hamilton after the Wildcats five-set win over Findlay in the GLIAC quarterfinals on Wednesday at Vandament Arena in Marquette. Hamilton had the final kill to win the match. (Journal photo by Adelle Whitefoot)
The Wildcats and Ashland (15-3 in GLIAC, 24-6 overall) are meeting for the third consecutive year in the GLIAC tournament with the Eagles winning both of the two previous quarterfinals meetings in Ohio.
NMU last reached the GLIAC semifinals in 2010 with 2003 being the last time the 'Cats won the tourney title.
"It's been a long time," head coach Dominic Yoder said. "I'm really happy for this group of seniors to put themselves back in that opportunity."
The Wildcats and Oilers traded set wins throughout the match, beginning with NMU taking set one 25-20.
During the first set, Herron also tallied her 1,000th career kill for the Wildcats.
"I was ecstatic," said Herron, who finished the match with 26 kills. "To have such a good team and setter, I couldn't be happier."
In set two, the score was tied five time before either team hit double digits. The Oilers eventually gained a slight lead on the 'Cats, who were unable to close the gap as Findlay took set two 25-22.
The Wildcats and Oilers traded the lead 10 times in set three, but it landed in NMU's hands for a 25-23 win.
"One thing we know about this group is they fight," Yoder said. "They're scrappy and they fight for every point."
Findlay led most of set four and, although Northern was able to close the small-but-steady Oilers lead by the end of the set, NMU was unable to take it over. Findlay took the set to tie the match at 2-2.
Set five looked like it was going to be an easy win for the Oilers, who led by as many as five points early on. Once the teams switched side of the court, the Wildcats turned it on, tying the set at 10-10.
From there, the Oilers scored two points and the Wildcats responded with two of their own. The scored was tied at every step from 12 to 16 before senior Sarah Hamilton closed out the match with a consecutive kill and a block for a final set score of 18-16.
"We were trying to figure out ways to create blocking opportunities for ourselves," Yoder said.
"I think at the end they got pretty predictable. Our serve really forced them out of system, and our seniors came through for us."
Behind Herron, senior Lina Lopes had 18 kills and Hamilton had 11. Senior Kellisha Harley recorded 60 assists for the 'Cats.
Despite these strong performances, Yoder said it was not just a single player or the senior class that got the NMU win - it was a collective effort.
Defensively, Lopes led in digs with 22, followed by sophomore Lisa Studnicka with 17 and sophomore Alex Berger with 16.
Yoder said the first-round home-court advantage was tremendous. The crowd helped keep the team motivated when they were down and focused throughout, he said.
"You could see the excitement in the fans," Yoder said. "Set five, especially after we were down four points, they really kept us into it."