HOUGHTON - The rest of the Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference will be thankful to not have to face Michigan Tech in this year's playoff volleyball tournament. But watch out next year.
With a 7-12 conference record, the Huskies' season came to an end Saturday at the SDC Gym, but they went out on a high note with their third straight win, a 3-2 thriller over Saginaw Valley (22-25, 25-19, 27-25, 18-25, 15-6).
"We're for real," Tech coach Matt Jennings said. "We won seven more games in conference than we did last year. I don't care where you started; plus-seven, no one else did that in our league. There's a lot to be said about that and they're all coming back and they believe in themselves, that's the key."
Michigan Tech’s Kienna Sharp goes on the attack during Saturday’s GLIAC?match against Saginaw Valley State at the SDC?Gym. Sharp had a match-high 17 kills in Tech’s 3-2 win.
Tech will only lose senior Skylar Paffenroth to graduation, but her only action of the year was the opening serve of senior night Friday after missing the rest of the year with a knee injury. The rest of the Huskies completed their transformation from GLIAC bottom-feeder to legitimate threat.
"I'm so happy for them. They are a great group and they deserve it," Jennings said. "I don't know how many times we can prove how much we trust each other when you put your back against the wall in the fifth set like that."
A week earlier Tech had defeated tournament-bound Hillsdale in five sets, and the Huskies pulled off similar late-match heroics over the Cardinals after both teams survived the ebbs and flows of the first four sets.
"I thought we came together really well as a team and everyone did their part," said Tech sophomore middle hitter Kienna Sharp, who more than did her part with a match-high 17 kills - with only one error - plus eight digs and 5 1/2 of Tech's 10 blocks.
"I definitely had the best game of my life today," she said. "I'm just very happy that we ended the way we did. I think we played with confidence. When they came out and beat us in the first and the fourth set, it didn't affect our game at all."
The first and second sets were filled with runs from both teams. The third was tied 14 times and never separated by more than three points.
The fourth was tied 9-9 before SVSU scored five of the next six and never looked back. The fifth was never in doubt after a tone-setting kill by Sylvie Rokosh.
In the opening set, Tech got two runs of four points and another of three, but it wasn't enough to overcome Saginaw's seven-point run that converted a 7-6 Tech lead into a 13-7 SVSU lead. The Huskies cut the deficit to 21-19 before Saginaw rattled off three straight and took four straight set-point opportunities to close it out.
"I didn't think we warmed up very well. I could have told you 20 minutes before the match that first set was going to them, but we worked into a rhythm," Jennings said. "I delayed timeouts on purpose. I wanted them to work through it and they did."
Did they ever.
After 12 kills and 12 errors in the first set, Tech tallied 15 kills against just six errors in the second set. Sharp and Shelby Jones each chipped in a kill during a key seven-point run that turned a 14-14 tie into a 21-14 lead that Tech never looked back from.
And the Huskies carried that momentum into the third set, though neither team could pull away. SVSU put together the longest run of the set, four points, at the most critical juncture, turning a 24-21 Tech set-point opportunity into their own set point chance at 25-24. But a pair of attack errors and a Jones kill gave Tech a 27-25 win and a 2-1 match lead.
Yet another late four-point run by SVSU gave them the fourth set, though, when they turned a 20-17 lead into a set-point opportunity.
Only a Sharp kill prevented a five-point run, but the match was destined for five sets.
Rokosh, who was visibly frustrated late in set four, forcefully buried the first kill of set five and it was all Tech the rest of the way.
"I knew toward the end of the fourth set it wasn't going to happen. I pulled Sylvie out and wanted to talk to her," Jennings said. "I told her she has a choice, she can either go up or down. She actually finished my sentence for me - she said I'm going up. I said we don't need a magician; we need Sylvie. That first point of the fifth set really set the tone and our offense was just very confident."
Jones notched two of her 17 kills in the fifth set, while Sharp added three more, and Rokosh, Aubrey Havlichek, setter Maddie Haben and even defensive specialist Sarah Rasmussen tallied kills in Tech's well-rounded effort. The Huskies opened a 5-1 lead and scored the final six points of the 15-6 clincher.
"I think it really was our confidence and our composure, and I think in matches before we were relying solely on a couple people," said Haben, who had 56 of Tech's 63 assists. "When they were off we were in the tank as well. Having other hitters step up and really put the balls away that we needed to put away just helped us out immensely."
In addition to the 17 kills by Sharp and Jones, Rokosh had 11 and Havlichek 10, helping Tech's offense out-hit SVSU .159 to .108.
Defensively, in addition to the 10 team blocks, Tech had five players with double-digit digs: Jackie Aird (25), Havlichek (20), Rasmussen (17), Haben (14) and Jones (13).
"Ending 3-0 on the season is awesome," Haben added. "We couldn't have asked for a better way to close out, except for going to the tournament. It's bittersweet because we're done and we're playing our best right now. We're looking forward to next year now and we have that momentum, but that was great to stick it to them."
Tech finishes the season with a 12-19 overall record, a 7-11 GLIAC record and a 5-4 home record after finishing with 2-25, 0-19 and 0-9 records, respectively, in 2011. The Huskies return all active players for 2013, and Jennings expects to announce five new recruits on Wednesday.