The long wait is over for the Calvin women’s volleyball program. On a magical Monday afternoon, the Knights captured their first-ever national title, defeating top-ranked Emory University (Ga.) 25-14, 25-20, 19-25, 25-23 in the national final at Washington University of St. Louis. The title came exactly 24 years to the very day that the Knights had suffered a heart-breaking five-set defeat in the 1986 National Championship final. That loss to the University of California at San Diego came in front of 3,800 fans at the Calvin Fieldhouse after the Knights led the match two sets to one.
A native of Holland and a graduate of Holland Christian High School, Amber Blankespoor Warners was a starting setter on Calvin’s 1986 national runner-up team. On Nov. 22, Warners led the Knights to the national title as the school’s head coach—a position she has held for the last nine years at her alma mater. Prior to coming to Calvin, Warners served as the head girls’ volleyball coach at Holland Christian High School, where she led the school to a Class B state runner-up finish in 1994.
“Finishing second is a great accomplishment but finishing first feels a whole lot better,” Warners said in the post-championship match press conference. “It feels very, very good to be on the winning side in a championship final.”
Before their National Championship match against Emory, Warners told her team: “Trust me when I tell you, you don’t want to have any regrets.”
She didn’t have to say any more.
“That gave us a glimpse into her mind. She had never mentioned it before,” said junior All-American Rebecca Kamp.
Ranked 10th nationally, Calvin roared out to a 25-14 first-set win as the Knights hit at a sizzling .609 attack percentage. Calvin then won set two behind an 11-6 scoring run after the match had been tied 14-14.
“Our (fast) start was beyond my expectations,” said Warners, who was named the Division III National Coach of the Year at the conclusion of the tournament. “Our team came out loose, ready to play and with an aggressive attitude. I think our block also gave them trouble early on. It forced them (Emory) to make a few adjustments with how they wanted to attack us.”
The top-ranked Eagles made those adjustments and stiffened in set three, keeping Calvin off balance with a strong service attack and lightning-quick passing headlined by 2010 Division III National Player of the Year Amelia McCall. “We knew that Emory was too good of a team not to come back,” said Warners. “Once they made some adjustments, it was a new game and we had to dig down and start to take some chances.”
Calvin did just that in set four, trailing early but finally taking its first lead of the fourth set on a quick middle attack by junior Renee DeHaan that put the Knights up 15-14. Calvin then used back-to-back kills from sophomore Lizzie Kamp to take a 17-15 lead, but Emory (36-5) clawed back to within a point at 17-16. Calvin was then able to build a 22-19 lead with kills from Rebecca Kamp and freshman setter Megan Rietema fueling the late surge. A kill by junior Erin VanderPlas gave Calvin a 23-21 lead, but the Eagles regrouped with a timeout and tied the match at 23 on a kill and a subsequent Calvin ball-handling error.
After a Calvin timeout, the Knights responded in clutch fashion as Rietema delivered a cross-court kill to the far corner, setting up championship point. With a national title on the line, Rietema stepped up again, eluding a wall of Emory defenders at the front of the net with a sublime cut shot that landed just inside the near sideline, sending the Knights into a wild celebration.
“Those last two plays were so typical of Megan,” said Warners of her setter who was named Division III National Freshman of the Year during the week of the national finals. “She’s so cool under pressure, and rarely does she get flustered. She was ready to make a couple of plays after our timeout. She wasn’t about to buckle under the pressure of the moment.”
Rietema finished the match with eight kills, 37 assists and an attack percentage of .368. She was named to the all-tournament team along with VanderPlas and Rebecca Kamp, with Kamp receiving tournament MVP honors. VanderPlas was huge in the match with 13 kills and a .385 hitting percentage while DeHaan hit at a .409 clip with 12 kills. Rebecca Kamp came up with 11 kills and four block assists. Lizzie Kamp also had seven kills and 14 digs while junior Kelly Peterson had 16 digs and three service aces.
The Calvin win completed a trifecta of victories against highly ranked opponents as the 10th-ranked Knights defeated second-ranked Wittenberg University (Ohio) in four sets in the regional final on Nov. 13, followed with a five-set win over third-ranked Juniata College (Pa.) in the national semifinals and concluded with the win against No. 1 ranked Emory.
“We played great teams in the national tournament,” said Rebecca Kamp, “but we wanted to show everyone that we have a great team, too. We felt that we weren’t getting the kind of respect we deserved … and that fired us up. We came in with an aggressive attitude with the idea of letting everyone know what Calvin College volleyball is all about.”
Calvin finished the year with an overall record of 32-4, marking the 10th 30-win campaign in program history.
Calvin’s national title run of six straight NCAA III tournament victories included wins over Heidelberg University (Ohio) and Wittenberg—two teams that had handed Calvin defeats during the regular season. It also came on the heels of a disappointing three-set loss to Hope in the MIAA tournament finals a week prior to the start of the NCAA III tournament.
“When we lost to Hope in the MIAA tournament, I think it created a bit of a ‘do-or-die’ sense of urgency for our team,” said Warners. “I think the other thing that created more energy within our team was knowing that we could face two teams in the regional round of the NCAA tournament that had beaten us during the regular season. That was a very motivating factor for our players, and once we got through our first match against Otterbein (University of Ohio), we started to build momentum. In sports, it’s all about peaking at the right time, and this team definitely did that in the NCAA tournament.”
The national title is the ninth in Calvin’s athletics history, joining the four national titles won by its men’s cross country team and the two each by its women’s cross country and men’s basketball teams.
In addition to the national title, a number of notable achievements unfolded during the year. As a team, Calvin gained a share of the final MIAA regular-season crown with a 15-1 league record. The MIAA title was Calvin’s league-leading 17th league crown. At the conclusion of the MIAA season, Rebecca Kamp was named the MIAA’s Most Valuable Player for the second time in three years and was voted to the All-MIAA first team for the third straight year. Rietema and Lizzie Kamp joined her on the All-MIAA first team while DeHaan was named to the All-MIAA second team. Rietema was named the MIAA’s Freshman of the Year and later received the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Great Lakes Regional Freshman of the Year award. Rebecca and Lizzie Kamp along with Rietema were named to the Great Lakes All-Region first team, with Rebecca Kamp later earning AVCA Division III First Team All-American honors for the third straight year, while Lizzie Kamp and Rietema were named AVCA Division III Honorable Mention All-Americans. Rebecca Kamp also earned a spot on the ESPN Academic All-District second team.
Calvin also ranked at the top of the list in two categories in the final 2010 NCAA III statistics: The Knights led the nation in blocks-per-set (2.8 blocks-per-set) and in hitting percentage with a .313 clip as a team. Calvin also finished 20th nationally in assists-per-set (11.96) and 25th in kills-per-set (12.89).
Individually, Rebecca Kamp finished third nationally in hitting percentage (.431), sixth in blocks-per-set (1.37), 10th in points-per-set (5.25) and 23rd in kills-per-set (.406). DeHaan finished sixth in blocks-per-set (1.37) while Rietema finished 21st in assists-per-set (10.53) and 30th in blocks-per-set (1.14).