Tommie Sports - Volleyball

Gene's Blog: VB beats Nate Silver odds, claims gold

November 21, 2012

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They did it. Tommie volleyball won 40 matches and much respect en route to an NCAA title. (Mark Brown photo)

Ok. A show of hands. Raise them up high if you thought Tommie volleyball would do all of the following:

--Overcome a 2-1 set deficit to win Oct. 5 at nationally-ranked Wartburg (15-13 deciding set) and hand the Knights their only home defeat in 2012;

--Overcome a 10-4 deficit in the deciding fifth set to win 15-12 and take the Nov. 1 MIAC playoff semifinal match against Carleton;

--Overcome a 2-1 set deficit to win the Nov. 3 MIAC playoff final match against nationally-ranked St. Ben’s;

--Overcome a 2-1 set deficit to win the Nov. 8 NCAA regional playoff quarterfinal elimination match against Cornell;

--Overcome a 1-0 set deficit to win the Nov. 10 NCAA regional playoff final elimination match against nationally-ranked St. Ben’s;

--Overcome a 2-0 set deficit in the Nov. 17 national championship match against No. 1-ranked Calvin

--Become the first conference team to complete a 14-0 run against MIAC opponents; sweep the MIAC regular-season and playoff and NCAA region and national championships; reach 40 wins; and close with a 35-match winning streak.

Let’s count those raised hands who believed that all of those above feats would happen: Voting in the affirmative are a Wachter, Atkinson, Wahlin, Piechowksi, Hawkins, Potts, Maher, Greenfield, Foley, Brimeyer, Reagan, Carlson, Glynn, Dahly, M. Johnson, K. Johnson, Westfield, Christensen, Kosbab, Heeren, Walton, Infelt, Biermann, Keogh; coaches Abrahamson, McNamara, Nowak, Tietz, Orren and Pham; all of their moms; some of their dads; and Tommie the Mascot.


The Comeback

Last Saturday night in Holland, Mich., it was a matchup of Noise vs. Poise. Coach Thanh Pham’s No. 8-ranked Tommies were blessed to be the first conference team ever to play in a national championship volleyball match, and cursed to face a Division III-record crowd of 3,517 that was 95% cheering for Calvin.

Facing a program that won nationals in 2010, St. Thomas, already trailing Calvin 3100-99 in fans, quickly fell behind 2-0 in sets with 25-13, 25-17 losses.

In 93 previous NCAA Division I, II and III volleyball nationals, just four teams trailed 2-0 in sets in the championship match and came back to capture the crown. Yikes, that’s a 4.7% chance of getting a 3-0 comeback. (By comparison, expectant mothers only have a 3% chance of having twins, and people only have a 2% chance of living to age 100… although on the bright side, the 4.7% comeback hopes are still 10 million times more likely that being killed by a falling coconut.)

In volleyball, the attack percentage, or hitting average, takes into account hitting attempts, hitting errors and kills. It can be compared to a batter’s average in baseball or softball. St. Thomas came into Saturday 87-1 over the last three years when it hits .200 or better as a team.

In the first two set losses, the Toms hit .131, while Calvin hit .463.


Don't Stop Believing

Bleak? The guy who wrote the Rocky boxing movies even stopped watching.

John Blutarsky, known for the inspirational speech to the Deltas in Animal House, was heard to say: “Over? Did you say over?... yeah, sorry Thanh, this one’s pretty much history.”

The coach went to his bench, and junior McKenna Reagan, who started the year as a defensive player, jump started the team with five kills in that third stanza. UST hit .245 to Calvin’ .091 and the Toms won 25-18. St. Thomas kept the crowd quiet in set four as it hit .267 to the Knights’ .047 and won 25-16.

The crowd and the odds still favored Calvin, but momentum and confidence wore Purple. In the deciding fifth set, Calvin hit .053 and the Toms, with just one error, hit .389. Calvin led only once, at 1-0. The Knights pulled within 11-9, but in their biggest match of their lives, the Tommies scored the final four points to cap an epic comeback and claim a 3-2 victory.

It's St. Thomas' 15th national team championship and fifth in the last 10 seasons but first for volleyball. This is the eighth different sport in which St. Thomas has won a national team title, joining men's and women's basketball; men's and women's cross country; baseball; softball and men's indoor track.

Thanh Pham, a man of many victories (287 in 10 seasons), was a many of few words immediately after that triumph. His first comment: “Wow.”

Jill Greenfield, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, said in the same post-match press conference that while she was in “complete shock, but not disbelief,” at the dramatic turn.

“That’s what got us here, that belief in our team, in our passion and heart,” said Greenfield. “That’s what Tommie volleyball is all about.”

Senior Kia Johnson, the team scientist/philosopher/defensive ace who has a 3.961 grade-point average, was equally profound. “We did it for so many people,” she explained. “There were so many players ahead of us that worked their tails off to help us realize that we can really do this, that we can win a national championship. It’s so amazing to look at all the hard work we put in in the off season and in season, and how much trust we have in each other. We always were able to find a way, and today, we found a way.”


One Memorable Season

The Toms had a better fall than Nate Silver. How’s this for depth: They had two All-America honorees in Kelly Foley and Paige Brimeyer, yet three different teammates (Greenfield, Kaiti Wachter and Sara Atkinson) were the ones named to the nationals’ All-Tournament Team. Wachter started all 149 career matches and finished in the top 12 in Division III history with nearly 2,950 digs.

St. Thomas’ lone season loss came on the road in Georgia way back on Sept. 7, a 16-14 loss in set five to No. 4-ranked Emory. But, hey, even the World Champion 1991 Minnesota Twins couldn’t win in Atlanta.

A gracious Calvin supporter sent this email on Monday to salute Thanh and the Tommies:

“Congratulations to your volleyball team for their championship play. While I walked out of the field house Saturday night stunned and sad for our girls, I reflected on the amazing resilience shown by your team. I had to believe it took them two sets to just get past the overwhelming home crowd and to start playing their game.

“I heard the coach gently telling them to keep their composure and they would be alright. They were.”

Yes, the Tommies were alright. You could be one of those two percenters that lives to be age 100 and never see a season quite like Tommie volleyball in 2012.


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Sara Atkinson, Mackenzie Piechowksi (Mark Brown photos


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Katie Maher (Mark Brown photo)

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Sara Atkinson (Mark Brown photo)

Gene McGivern

Sports information director Gene McGivern is working in his 18th season at St. Thomas and 24th in the MIAC. He blogs periodically on various topics regarding the Tommies, the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (MIAC) and Division III sports.

If you have comments or questions, e-mail Gene at