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Singing the Blues

U of W Eau Claire Blue ruin Freemen volleyball’s conference title defense

The Providence Freemen travelled to Fargo, North Dakota this past weekend to compete in the Northern Intercollegiate Volleyball Conference (NIVC) Conference Championships. The Freemen entered the tournament having claimed 7 of the last 8 championships, and looked to defend last year’s title-winning performance.

However, the Freemen didn’t have an easy path to the conference finals. They would have to play seven to eight 3-set games in two days in order to claim the title. However, Providence was fortunate enough to face less challenging opponents early on in the tournament, which allowed head coach Jason Peters to rest his starters for the latter stages of the championship.

“The schedule didn't really provide any opponents that were to push us until the end of the first day,” coach Peters commented. “The guys handled the first day well. We rotated our line-up all the way through the round robin, with every player contributing to the wins. Bethel University was the first test for our club at the end of the day.”

The Freemen went though the tournament round-robin segment on a roll. They began the day with a victory over the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire White (B team) (25-8, 25-15). Providence then followed that by cruising through match-ups with Carleton College (25-7, 25-19) and St. John’s University (25-12, 25-14). Key single-game performances, in chronological order, included a triple ace performance from captain Paul Warkentine, a 4 kill and 2 block output from freshman Bryton Arnal, and sophomore BJ Harder’s 5 kill tally.

Providence then finished their Saturday competition with consecutive wins (25-20, 25-20) and (25-22, 25-12) over Bethel University. The first game featured a slow start from the Freemen after such a long day. However, the squad responded and jumped back to their normal level of play when an animated Coach Peters gave his team a loud “motivational” speech during an early first-set timeout. Following that, the Freemen finished strong, and were led offensively through the two match-ups by freshmen standouts Delmer Krahn (16 kills) and Kevin Hildebrand (12 kills).

Once all was said and done Saturday evening, the Freemen had successfully torn through their first five opponents by winning ten straight sets while only allowing their opponents to break the twenty-point mark on three occasions.

Sunday marked the end of round-robin competition and the beginning of the playoff matches. Providence’s first match-up of the day was an A-side final against the nationally ranked University of Wisconsin Eau Claire Blue (A Team). Unfortunately for the Freemen, the Blue came to play while Providence didn’t come out with the necessary energy, which allowed U of W to take the game in two quick sets (25-17, 25-19)

“We came out flat against a top opponent,” Coach Peters commented of the match. “We didn’t respond well, and were not a factor in the match because of that.”

The loss meant that the Freemen would have to drop to a do-or-die match-up against University of Wisconsin River Falls. A loss would mean a disappointing end to Providence’s tournament, while a win would give the Freemen a chance at redemption as they would earn a re-match against the Blues in the conference finals.

The River Falls-Freemen match proved to have residuals from last season, as both sides entered the match with an overwhelming want to knock out their NIVC rival. The first set proved to have uneasy moments for a Freemen squad coming off their first loss of their tournament, but they were able to sneak away for a 25-21 set win. The two squad then played a well-contested second set, but the Freemen led throughout and finished the set and match with a 25-22 score.

The win set Providence up for their coveted re-match against the Blue. The Freemen pride showed through immediately, as the squad came out with an intensity that far surpassed any effort given thus far in the championships. It was an attack that proved too much for a Blue side caught off-guard, and the Freemen took the first set 25-19.

The second set then set the scene for what came to be the most epic showdown of the Freemen season thus far. As coach Peters commented, “it was a battle right from the first point, with both sides exchanging points, and both sides having multiple opportunities to win the match”. The set went into extra points and beyond, eventually becoming an amazing 70-point game. However, it was the Blue who were finally able to string together the clinching point, and they took the set 36-34.

The loss seemed to take the wind out of the Providence roster’s sails while simultaneously igniting the U of W Eau Claire offense, and the Blue took the final set 15-9 to win the match and deny a Freemen repeat as Conference Champions. Krahn led the Freemen with an outstanding 19 kill performance.

While the loss undoubtedly ended the Freemen’s tournament in disappointment, coach Peters saw many positives in a squad that now has to quickly re-group before heading into the NCVF National Tournament beginning April 2 in Kentucky.

“I fully expect Eau Claire to challenge for a national title this year, and our final with them could have gone either way, so we are not far off,” coach Peters commented following the weekend’s action. “Our guys also played pretty courageously considering that we had a nasty flu bug ripping through the team.”

“We have some things to shore up this week at practice, but we are pretty well prepared for our trip to nationals next week in Kentucky. If we are at our best, we should be in the mix. I expect us to enter the tournament as a top 10 seed out of 48 teams, and we have the ability to push into the top 5. From there, anything can happen.”

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