HAMILTON, N. Y. – It's official, Cotterell Court is going to need a new roof. And that mean ol' American University dragon? Finally slayed. Sunday in a match remarkable for its on-court action – much less the stakes along with the outpouring of fan support that may stand alone in Cotterell history – Colgate rallied from a set down and fought off a match point to win its first Patriot League Volleyball Championship in 13 years.
The Raiders defeated American 3-2 behind scores of 16-25, 25-19, 21-25, 25-21, and an amazing 20-18 in the final set. It was the program's first Patriot League title since 1999.
“Both teams left their hearts on the floor,” Colgate head coach Ryan Baker said. “It was one of the best volleyball matches I've ever seen, and to be a part of it is something I'll never forget.
“But to win in a fifth set, extra points – it was the best Patriot League match that's ever been played. Not even close.”
The teams split the season series, each winning on their home floors. But Colgate used its 9-0 start in league play to capture the regular season title and tournament hosting honors for the first time since 1996.
So not only was American not playing on its home floor in the Patriot League Tournament for only the second time in the last 12 years, but Colgate's students, parents and fans had their chance to make a difference.
And did they ever. The Cotterell rafters are still reeling from Sunday's continuous wall of sound.
“Honestly, the student-athletes from Colgate – the football players, the women's basketball players and all the other athletes – they changed the match,” Baker said. “The energy they created – I truly credit Game 4 to them. We were down 6-1 and they changed the match. And then in Game 5, they consistently supported us.
“Those fans are what make Colgate special.”
The Raiders to a player said the crowd support not only affected them but also the visitors.
“It was unreal; it definitely helped us win the game,” said Michelle McCarthy, tournament MVP. “They were really hassling the servers, so that helped a lot.”
Fellow All-Tournament selectee Diane Seely added, “We've never had a crowd like that in our home gym. They are the reason we won that game. We couldn't believe we could fill the stands like that. It was amazing.
“It got us going and got the other team shaken a little bit. It was great.”
But it was Colgate that showed the early butterflies. American jumped in front 7-4 courtesy of three Colgate service errors. It was still only 10-7 when the Eagles scored six of the next eight points to stretch the advantage to 16-9. Blocks at the net by Liz Karnes and Kate Reilly helped Colgate close to within 16-13, but American regained control after a timeout and breezed to the 25-16 opening-set win.
“The momentum flew all day,” Baker said. “The first set, we were flat and nervous. Service errors were all over the map. But then we sort of settled in. It's one of the few times I've seen this team actually respond. I told them this week, 'I want to see if you can lose a set and come back and win.'
“And it played out that way.”
That initial response came in Set 2. Tied 7-7, Colgate ignited its first big run of the day by scoring six straight and 11 of the next 13 points to make it 18-9. Two different American timeouts couldn't stem the maroon tide, and Colgate merely traded points the rest of the way to post a 25-19 decision.
Seely and McCarthy posted big kills down the stretch against the long and lanky Eagles front line.
“We worked a lot in practice aware that we would be going against a big block,” Seely said. “I actually changed some of my offensive game, running more slower-higher sets so I could try to get around them. And Kaylee Fifer did a great job of getting me those balls.
“Even though we had only one day to prepare our offense, we anticipated we would face American and we did what we could to get around their block. Our front row did a great job.”
After the intermission, Colgate kept the momentum going into Set 3. Reilly, Seely and Lindsay Young were doing the damage up front for the Raiders, who climbed to leads of 11-7 and 14-9.
Back the Other Way
Then momentum swung again almost out of nowhere. American claimed five straight points to tie the set at 14-all. Colgate fought back behind McCarthy's kill to regain the lead at 19-17, but American poured it on again. Four straight points and eight of the last 10 sealed the important third set for the Eagles, 25-21.
Just as Colgate lamented letting one get away, so too would the Eagles after Set 4. American went for the throat right out of the gate, leading 6-1 and then 10-4 with the clincher in sight.
But Colgate's crowd was having way too much fun to go home early, and the Raiders obliged by reeling off five in a row to force an American timeout at 10-9. The teams traded points and American star outside hitter Juliana Crum added a pair of kills to make it 19-16 Eagles, but Colgate rallied again.
Four American blocks weren't enough to stave off a Colgate point on Young's kill, closing the gap to 19-18. Then a pair of Eagles errors handed Colgate its first lead of the set at 20-19. Karnes, Young and Fifer did the honors for the final three points as the Raiders drew even, 25-21.
“We couldn't have done it without them,” Fifer said of the crowd. “They really came alive in the third and fourth game and really helped push us through. We got energy off them and it was great.”
The set was Colgate's best from a statistical standpoint, with the Raiders posting a team attack percentage of .357. Colgate's service game also improved after that opening stretch, with only one more error the rest of the way.
“We are really good at coming from behind, and that comes down to serving,” McCarthy said. “Our serving on the back line was so, so good. They were out of system; they couldn't put a ball down. We were getting big blocks and that's a huge momentum changer.
“This game is a solid 85 percent mental and momentum. Those points – that's what wins.”
Winner Take All
So it was down to one set. Fifteen points.
And what happens? Boom! Just like that, it's 4-0 American.
But the Raiders called timeout to regroup. Baker's words of wisdom obviously worked, because Reilly and Karnes got Colgate on the board with a nice block. Then Seely followed with a kill and won a jump-ball at the net to make it three points in a row.
Re-enter the crowd.
American added a point but then the Raiders reeled off five straight. Fifer contributed another of her patented left-handers that found a home just inside the back line, and Reilly blasted a kill after a lengthy back-and-forth to make it 8-5 for the change of sides. Cotterell was on fire.
The Eagles climbed back to a 10-all tie but then Colgate took it to the absolute brink by scoring four more in a row. Serving and net play again were the difference.
“That's definitely something we focused on before this match, trying to go four points for every one point that American had,” said Caitlin Cremin, who finished with a team-high 20 digs and was sharp on the serve. “Being able to hold serve and keeping the other team from doing the same is really, really big.”
'Knots' So Fast
Baker said he nearly missed the fact that Colgate was serving for the match, although he surely was alone in that regard.
“I though the scoreboard was wrong; I didn't know it was for match point,” he said. “When they told me it was 14-10, I could feel my stomach just get into knots – probably like our players did. We got a little tight and they're a great serving team. All day they were a great serving team.”
With those four match points to spare, the Raiders allowed a kill and then Young was just wide on an attempt of her own. When Karnes and Young were stuffed on back-to-back plays, the match suddenly was tied at 14-14. Young was in the middle of things again with a kill that gave Colgate its fifth match point, but American responded with two points of its own to push the Raiders to the brink.
Thoughts of the Colgate players at that moment were interesting when recalled after the match.
“Get the next ball,” Fifer said matter-of-factly. “It wasn't, 'Oh, my gosh. If we don't get this, we're going to lose everything.' It was all about getting the next ball and everyone knew it. We all felt comfortable, we were all ready to play that point and we just knew we were going to get it.”
McCarthy had a slightly different memory.
“I was thinking, 'Don't screw up,'” she said. “And then they served me. I don't do passing, and they served me. It was a really long point and I was holding my breath, but we did it. We did it.”
New Patriot Royalty
It was a lengthy point. But several Colgate saves and back-and-forth volleys finally found McCarthy, who blasted her 14th kill to tie things again at 16. Colgate stayed in front from there but couldn't gain the winner until, with Lexi Finger serving, American's Crum was ruled to have struck her kill attempt long.
The Eagles appealed that the ball was tipped, but the close call went Colgate's way and the Raiders had the 20-18 victory and the match. American's run of 10 Patriot League Championships in 11 years was over.
“American – they're perennial champions,” Baker said. “Honestly, I really did want to play them. Barry (Goldberg) and his staff have one of the best programs in the Patriot League and in the Northeast. I've had to face him numerous times, so it meant a lot. I have such respect for them and their program, and what he's done there.
“It really meant a lot to win a championship against them.”
Fifer joined McCarthy and Seely as Colgate representatives on the All-Tournament Team. She, too, recognized the magnitude of defeating American.
“We definitely wanted to play them,” Fifer said. “They are just as good as we are and we just played better today. We wanted to beat them when it counted, and it definitely was a nail-biter.”
McCarthy led the team with an attack percentage of .414, finishing with just two errors. Seely and Young also were impressive on the front line, with 18 and 15 kills respectively. Do-everything Fifer finished with 49 assists, 12 digs, 4 blocks and 3 kills, while Karnes (7) and Reilly (4) teamed for 11 blocks.
American's Crum led all players with 21 kills, and Kylann Scheidt finished with 58 assists. Crum and Kelly McCadden (14 kills) were named to the All-Tournament Team, along with Lehigh's Taylor Poole and Army's Ariana Mankus.
Colgate earns an automatic berth into the NCAA tournament, and learns its first-round destination and opponent Sunday, Nov. 25, during the 4 p.m. selection show on ESPNU.
“We're really excited for here on out,” Young said. “We were just talking about the fact that Colgate volleyball has never won the first round of NCAAs, so we're enjoying this for tonight and then it's time to recharge. We have to get ready for two weeks from now for wherever we end up in the NCAAs.”
The Patriot League championship is Colgate's third this fall season to go with women's soccer and football.