Story Credit: Kevin White - Daily Nonpareil
HUTCHINSON, Kan. – Shocked just about sums it up, Ali Verzani said.
The second-rated Iowa Western volleyball team entered Thursday 37-1 and successfully navigated the first four sets, sweeping Hutchinson in the morning and beating Tyler 25-20 in the opener of their quarterfinal match later that afternoon.
But the 16th-rated Apaches turned things around in resounding fashion, blending some terrific blocking and defense with their relentless attacks and upsetting the Reivers 20-25, 25-17, 25-18, 25-19 in a national quarterfinal of the NJCAA Division I tournament at the Hutchinson Sports Arena.
"I think all of us right now, we are kind of emotionless because we're so shocked,'' said Verzani, a redshirt freshman from Lawton, Iowa. "We just know that we're a better team than that, and a better team than them, and we just didn't show it tonight and that's what really hurts.''
Tyler (21-9), the seventh seed in the tournament, avenged an early season three-set loss to the Reivers and will meet third-seeded, fifth-rated College of Southern Idaho (30-3) in Friday's 6:30 p.m. semifinal.
Iowa Western (38-2), which was seeking its fifth trip to the final four, secured its 11th top-eight finish in 12 years with its 25-16, 25-23, 25-21 first-round win over Hutchinson earlier in the day. The Reivers will return to consolation play on Friday at 2:30 p.m. against sixth-seeded Mineral Area (35-1), and they'll finish between fifth and eighth.
Although it struggled mightily in the second and third sets, Iowa Western coach Alicia Williams believed her club would find a way to win. It often had, including a five-set win over Hutchinson in the same arena less than eight weeks ago when it also trailed two sets to one.
"I still felt confident in the fourth set,'' she said. "You know, we've been here before in this gym. Against Hutchinson we did that. We were fighting for it, but I've got to hand it to Tyler. They played really good ball.''
After trailing 6-2 in the fourth set, Iowa Western led 11-10, 12-11, 14-13, 17-16 and 18-17. But it never built a two-point lead, which perhaps would have allowed it to relax more. The Apaches kept charging, and at 19-all, they made their final push, ripping off the final six points of the hour-and-35-minute match.
Iowa Western's hitting percentage plummeted as its passing faltered. It hit .333 in the opener, but then dropped to .267, .188 and finally .103 in the fourth. Remarkably, after winning the opening set and leading 10-8 in the second, the Reivers never led by more than one point the rest of the way.
"I thought our defense played well,'' Williams said. "It's just that I felt we were always on defense. I think we just thought too much about our passing, honestly. It came down to passing. We've been a good passing team, for the most part.''
Tyler coach Brandi Hood said she was still experimenting with lineups in early September when the Reivers won easily in three.
"I don't even feel like they got to play Tyler at all,'' she said. "We just looked silly, so that was just embarrassing.''
A mentally tougher Apache team took the floor on Thursday, she said, one that took the Reivers out of their offense as the match progressed.
"We started to break down ball control on them, so that was the biggest thing, just kind of continue to frustrate them,'' Hood said.
Williams said there is still plenty to play for.
"Now it becomes respect the game, integrity,'' she said. "Are you going to roll over and die because you didn't get the one thing that you wanted? You revisit your goals, and now our goal is fifth, because that's the best we can do.''
Verzani believes the relationships her team has built will translate to a strong effort the rest of the way.
"This is the last weekend we have with this team,'' she said. "A lot of us are leaving at semester with different things, and we just care about each other more than the game of volleyball. We care about each other on and off the court, and we want to end on a high note for each other.''