Women's Volleyball: Concordia women score big win over Scorpions

It was the NAIA women's volleyball version of the immovable object vs. the irresistible force.

Irvine's Concordia University, 24-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation, played host to the University of Texas-Brownsville, 20-0 and ranked No. 1, Thursday night at CU Arena.

The teams know each other well, their last meeting coming in the NAIA national championship match last season and one in which Brownsville came out on top.

Concordia went into last year's title game having won 36 matches in a row. Thursday, the Eagles' winning streak was a more modest 24 straight, while Brownsville had won 29 in a row, going back to their regular-season loss last season to, of course, Concordia.

An overflow crowd estimated at 1,700 filled the arena and helped carry the Eagles to a dramatic five-set victory, 24-26, 30-28, 25-20, 20-25, 15-12, improving their season mark to a perfect 25-0.

But before Concordia can consider their title match loss avenged, coach Dan Fisher is quick to put a lid on it. After all, the Eagles beat Brownsville last year in the regular season as well.

"We are trying to keep it in perspective," said Fisher, who is 62-2 as the Eagles' head coach since taking over the program last year. "The thing we take away from the game was we didn't play our best and were still able to win. My setter Liz Younglove said it best; she said last year when we beat them at home it kind of felt like we got lucky, we played as good as we could play.

"This year we won without playing as good as we could. I think the girls felt like we should win and we can beat them regularly."

Concordia still has five more Golden State Athletic Conference matches and two nonconference matches before the NAIA playoffs begin in about five weeks. From there, there's a good chance the two top-ranked teams will wind up meeting again.

"There's a lot of work left to be done but I think that there's a lot of value in knowing you can win every time out and you don't have to be at your absolute best," Fisher said.

So the Eagles played just OK, yet it was good enough to beat the No. 1 team in the nation and the defending national champion.

"Statistically and percentage-wise, Madison Ekis (16 kills, .406 hitting percentage) was our best in terms of having our most efficient night, and I thought our libero Kara Vincitorio, who is a very good player, she really came up with some big plays," Fisher said. "I think you just have to look at it as hey, we have a group of five really good players, none of which had a great night. The key was just staying in the moment and finding a way to get the next point."

One of the key points of the match came late in the fifth set when Jessica Israel came up with a clutch kill.

"She had a pretty big swing against a double block and she crushed it," Fisher said. "She's someone that doesn't get a lot of pressure swings but she came up huge.

"When you get in those situations in the fifth set, it doesn't matter how you've played the whole night, it's 'can you get a point for your team right now?'"

The challenge presented by Brownsville was welcomed and needed, Fisher said. Thursday was the first time all season the Eagles have been pushed to five sets.

"That's the kind of situation we need to be in more," Fisher said. "If you follow the league a little bit, you know we've lost to Azusa [Pacific] and Cal Baptist [in previous seasons], some of the stronger teams in our league, historically, who would put us in those situations more. So this was really the first time we've been in that situation against that caliber an opponent."

Now that the highlighted match on the schedule has been played, and the mission was accomplished, Fisher faces the prospect of seeing his players let down. But the Eagles are so good, a letdown doesn't necessarily mean they will lose.

"There's always a fear of letdown, but not a fear of letdown in that we'll lose a game or that we won't make the national tournament," he said. "I guess my fear is that, as an athlete when you're young, you think it's going to be too easy. Myself and the staff will continue to remind them how much better we need to get. So for us, it's how much we're going to show up every day in the practice gym."

Unfortunately for the Eagles, they won't be able to take their gym filled with their fans to the NAIA playoffs. Thursday's match drew an overflow crowd of 1,700 that sounded more like 17,000.

"The coolest thing about it was the amount of support we got," Fisher said. "We pretty much had every student-athlete in the school here, and a good percentage of the entire student body was at the game. Administrators said it was the most-attended women's volleyball match in school history."

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