Staying in the Moment

Path to national women’s volleyball title paved with comebacks

by Jeff Febus ‘92
Spring 2014

With a quick half-turn and a sideways swipe of her left arm, Calvin senior setter Megan Rietema sent more than 3,000 Calvin fans into a wild and joyous celebration.

For the second time in four years, the 6-2 setter had secured a national championship for the Calvin women’s volleyball team.

As a freshman in 2010, Rietema closed out a four-set national championship win over Emory University with a left-handed dump down the near sideline. In fitting fashion, the 2013 Division III National Player of the Year concluded her Calvin career in the same way with another left-handed swipe down the near sideline. Her quick play provided the point that clinched a heart-stopping, come-from-behind five-set win over Cal Lutheran in the national finals on the campus of Hope College.

The comeback was remarkable and the intestinal fortitude equally admirable in Calvin’s 20-25, 12-25, 25-22, 25-17, 20-18 victory over the Regals.

One year ago

Just one year prior, the Knights had been on the opposite side of the spectrum in the exact same location, falling in five sets in the national finals to St. Thomas of Minnesota at Hope’s DeVos Fieldhouse. In the loss to St. Thomas, Calvin rolled to wins in the opening two sets but then saw the momentum slip away in front of a packed house of Calvin fans.

“One of the things that went through my mind for months after last year’s [finals defeat] was whether we would ever have the privilege to come back and have the courage to compete and be vulnerable to defeat again,” said Calvin volleyball coach Amber Warners. “It’s just such a great feeling to do this in front of so many of our fans and share it with them. They never gave up on us.”

Staying tough—and at times, coming from behind—proved to be trademarks for Calvin’s 2013 volleyball team that featured just two seniors in Rietema (Grand Rapids, Mich.) and senior libero Kristen Zietse (Grand Rapids, Mich.), who were members of Calvin’s 2010 national championship team.

A challenging start

The year began with a challenging tournament in the state of Washington on the campus of the University of Puget Sound. At the tournament, Calvin claimed wins over nationally ranked Wartburg, Pacific Lutheran and Puget Sound, with the wins over Wartburg and Pacific Lutheran coming after early deficits. In the win over Pacific Lutheran, Calvin dropped the first two sets but came back to win the next three, including a 15-12 win in set five.

It was a sign of things to come.

Calvin proceeded to win its first 24 matches of the year, including subsequent wins over seven additional nationally ranked teams, including a three-set win over second-ranked Hope in mid-September.

On Oct. 18, top-ranked Calvin traveled to still second-ranked Hope for a rematch. In front of a sellout crowd, Hope claimed a five-set win to knock the Knights from the ranks of the unbeaten. The loss was difficult to stomach for the Calvin faithful as the Knights held a 2-1 set lead and a lead late in set four before falling to the Flying Dutch.

“Hope played really well, and we made a lot of unforced errors,” Warners said after the match. “This is really good for our team to go through as far as the environment, the adversity and being challenged—those are going to be growing moments for us that are really, really important for the next six weeks. I’m thinking this will be something that refuels our fire. If a loss is what it is going to take—it might not taste very good now—but it might be really necessary.”

Calvin regrouped to win its final three regular-season matches to share the final MIAA regular-season crown with Hope. Due to a tiebreaker edge on direct head-to-head sets won against each other during the season, Calvin claimed home-court advantage for the MIAA tournament and quickly dispatched of Saint Mary’s to set up a third meeting against the now top-ranked Flying Dutch of Hope in the MIAA tournament finals.

This time the shoe was on the other foot as Calvin battled back from a 2-1 sets deficit to win a five-set thriller. In set five, Calvin trailed 7-3 but ripped off a lengthy run to record a clinching 15-12 set five win.

Reclaiming top spot

With the MIAA tournament title, Calvin moved back into the top spot in the national rankings and received a home-court berth for the NCAA III regionals. Hope dropped back down to second in the national rankings but most notably was sent to the Chicago area to compete in a separate regional round.

In regional play, Calvin cruised to a first-round win over Penn State-Behrend but then ran into a talented Mount Union team in the second round for the second straight year. As they had in 2012, the ninth-ranked Purple Raiders pushed Calvin to five sets, but once again Calvin was up to the task, recording a 15-8 set five win to advance to the regional finals.

Calvin’s regional final opponent was a familiar foe—10th-ranked Wittenberg University—marking the fourth straight year the two non-conference rivals would meet for a regional crown. Calvin picked up 25-19, 25-22 wins to open the match, but the Tigers stiffened to win sets three and four. Once again the Knights rose up in set five, winning 15-9 to advance to the national finals in Holland, Mich., for the second straight year.

Also advancing to the national finals, however, was host Hope, as it claimed a regional crown at Elmhurst University.

In fact, Calvin and Hope were on opposite sides of the national bracket, producing a buzz around west Michigan of a potential national championship final between the two rivals on Hope’s home floor.

A national championship meeting between the two storied rivals was not to be, however, as Hope fell in the quarterfinals to Wisconsin-Stevens Point while Calvin pressed on with a four-set quarterfinal win over the University of Massachusetts Boston and a three-set semifinal win over Emory University.

Calvin’s opponent in the national finals was the quick and athletic Regals of Cal Lutheran University—a team like Calvin that had dropped only one match all year and was ranked No. 3 in the country.

Momentum swing

In front of a standing-room-only crowd, Cal Lutheran had Calvin completely on its heels through sets one and two, digging up every attack and finding the seams in Calvin’s defense.

During the 10-minute intermission between sets two and three, not a word about volleyball was spoken inside the Calvin locker room for nearly six minutes. Instead they focused on fun word games to help loosen the mood. Then Warners gave a quick and direct speech.

“I told our team that we’ve been in this situation before and had the momentum flipped and you can do the same and flip it back,” said Warners. “It sounds so cliché but to stay in the moment and just to play for each point is so crucial. Our backs were to the wall but we had been in that situation before, and we believed we could do it.”

As the third set began, the wheels began to turn for the Knights and the momentum indeed began to build. Calvin took the lead at 15-14 and never lost it again in the set. Back-to-back kills by sophomore Maggie Kamp (Orland Park, Ill.) closed out the set three win, and the Calvin throng roared its approval.

“Volleyball is such a game of momentum, and once we got that momentum going our team wouldn’t let up, and you could start to see Cal Lutheran start to doubt a little,” said Warners. “The crowd at that point was pretty amazing and gave us a huge boost.”

Calvin then raced through a 25-17 set four win, hitting nearly .300 as a team, but set five would prove to be the most dramatic—perhaps the most dramatic in Calvin volleyball history.

With one final surge Cal Lutheran jumped out to a 10-6 lead and then held an 11-7 edge, standing only four points away from a national championship. But Calvin fought back, winning seven of the next eight points, including two monster kills by Maggie Kamp that tied the score at 12. A block by juniors Emily Crowe (Granger, Ind.) and Stacey Kamp (Orland Park, Ill.) gave the Knights a 14-12 lead, and a national championship was staring the Knights in the face.

volleyball court action

But the drama was far from over as the Regals tied the score at 14. A Maggie Kamp kill gave the Knights yet another national championship point, but Cal Lutheran fought back with two points of its own to give itself a crack at the title with just one swing. But the Knights clawed back with yet another kill by Maggie Kamp and then held leads at 17-16 and 18-17 but could not find a way to reach the finish line.

Calvin’s sixth national championship point came at 19-18 after a kill by junior Ellie Diepersloot (Madera, Calif.). With the atmosphere thick with tension, freshman Laura Danhoff (Willard, Ohio) stepped up and whipped a serve to the Cal Lutheran back row. When the Regals attacked, sophomore Jamie Kooiman (Eugene, Ore.) was in perfect position for a well-placed serve receive that was sent right to the long left arm of Rietema along the near sideline. With a quick whirl, just as she had done so four years before, Rietema closed out the final page of the Calvin season with a well-earned national championship point. Calvin finished the season at 35-1.

Post-season awards

After cranking out 27 kills, Maggie Kamp was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player and was joined on the all-tournament team from Calvin by Rietema and Zietse, who both tallied 23 digs in the championship match.

“After last year, I knew that it was possible to come down from two sets and win,” said Kamp, who racked up 19 of her 27 kills in the final three sets.

Possible but not probable, as Calvin became just the seventh school at any NCAA level in women’s volleyball to overcome a two set deficit in the national championship final. “This is what we play volleyball for—the high intensity and the big moments,” added Kamp.

The postseason awards were numerous. Rietema and Maggie Kamp were named first-team All-Americans, while Crowe was a third-team All-American selection and Zietse an honorable mention All-American choice. Danhoff was named the Great Lakes Regional and MIAA Freshman of the Year.

Rietema became the third consecutive Calvin player to be named the Division III National Player of the Year, joining Lizzie Kamp (2012) and Rebecca Kamp (2011) to have done so.

Finally, Warners was named the Division III National Coach of the Year for the third time in four years after winning the national title in her hometown of Holland.

According to Warners, the national championship was not the highlight—the true highlight was coaching a special group of young women. “I can’t tell you how grateful, humble and blessed that I am to coach these young women,” said Warners. “We look at winning as icing on the cake. It’s the inner workings of our team that really make our program special, and that can’t happen unless we have young women that really buy into our team philosophy.”
           
Jeff Febus is Calvin’s sports information director.