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A comeback for the ages

By Jake Knabel on Sep. 19, 2016 in Volleyball

SEWARD, Neb. – It may not have been game 7 of the World Series, but the match that occurred on Sept. 17 could be one to circle should the Concordia University volleyball team put together the special season it seeks. For nearly three full sets, the Bulldogs were clearly outplayed and on the verge of a frustrating home loss while up against Morningside. But, you know, sports. Weird, incredible things happen.

It’s fair to call what took place miraculous. In 20 years of volleyball experience, head coach Scott Mattera had never seen anything like it. Said the fifth-year Concordia leader afterwards, “I’m still trying to figure out how we won.”

It didn’t go down anything like how the Bulldogs would have drawn it up. The Mustangs took the first two sets by scores of 25-20 and 25-23. Then in the third set, Morningside sat on the doorstep of victory with a 24-19 lead. There were six match point opportunities for the Mustangs. Somehow the Bulldogs fought off every one of them.

According to Ken Shirriff’s piece, “The Mathematics of Volleyball,” a team trailing 24-19 has about a two percent chance of winning that set. Throw in the fact that Concordia already fell in the first two sets and you get the idea just how unlikely it was for a Bulldog win.

“When it was 24-19 in the third, it’s pretty hard to believe that you can go on a 5-0 run after dropping sets 1 and 2,” said senior Tiegen Skains. “Somewhere in that run, the momentum switched and we started playing as well as we know we are capable of. It was nice to get the win, but we know we are going to have to learn how to play at our best from the very beginning.”

The tide turned in the third set when a combined block by Paige Getz and Taylor Workman cut the deficit to 24-20 (three percent chance of winning). A Morningside attack error followed, 24-21 (six percent). Workman ace, 24-22 (12 percent). Getz kill, 24-23 (25 percent). Getz kill, 24-24 (50 percent). Only a Workman service error could stop the Bulldog locomotive that had suddenly kicked into high gear. Now it was a seesaw battle. At 27-27, Concordia finally persevered thanks to a Morningside service error and another block by Workman.

Now it’s a ballgame. With setter Alayna Kavanaugh settling into a groove in the fourth set, the Bulldogs hit .278, put away 16 points on kills and forced a dramatic fifth set. During the nip-and-tuck deciding set, neither team led by more than two points.

Down 14-13, Concordia again had to fend off match point. Enter Getz for a career-high tying 20th kill. Then came an ace from Workman, her sixth of the night, followed by a Morningside attack error. The celebration was on inside Walz Arena.

But it was a different type of celebration. In recent seasons Walz Arena has played witness to monumental wins over ranked opponents and the first NAIA national championship event hosted by Concordia since 2001. None of them featured such a swing of emotions. This had it all. From almost certain defeat to the winner’s circle.

The act of wizardry marked the team’s ninth win over its past 10 outings. It could end up being the one that carries the most significance.

“Coming back from that large of a deficit and then taking care of business the next two sets just shows how maturely we can win matches,” Getz said. “I that that it was enough for us to see how good we are and move forward.”

Added Kavanaugh, “It was a crazy comeback. I didn’t even realize how crazy until after the game when I was talking to people.”

But Kavanaugh and company prefer not to follow a similar script in the future, even if Saturday’s win did make for compelling drama.

“We should have taken care of our side,” Kavanaugh admitted. “It is important to notice that we could have just sat down and lost in the third, so the fight and tenacity we had at the end of the third and then in the fourth and fifth was rewarding. I’m ready for practice on Monday so we can take care of business this week.”

In the midst of a season­-long grind, it’s easy to dismiss one match and move to the next one. But this one should not be forgotten. With the circumstances as they were in the third set, Concordia had no business winning, but it did.

"Coming back from a five-point hole (24-19) made it really easy to fight to win the next two sets," Jocelyn Garcia said. "There was no doubt in our mind after that set that we would win the match. We stepped it up, got our confidence back and balled out."

Said Mattera during his postgame interview, “We said, ‘Boy, if we can pull this off it could be a season changer.’”

The Bulldogs (10-7, 2-1 GPAC) will return to action on Wednesday with a 7:30 p.m. match at 20th-ranked Doane (12-4, 2-2 GPAC).