Big Red earns NCAC semifinal berth with 20th win
In the quarterfinals of last season's North Coast Athletic Conference Tournament, fifth-seeded Wooster handed the fourth-seeded Big Red a 3-1 loss at Pam Evans Smith Arena. One year later, the two teams met once again in the opening round of the NCAC Tournament in Springfield, Ohio. In the quarterfinal rematch, the third-seeded Big Red gained a measure of revenge with a 3-1 (21-25, 27-25, 25-20, 25-15) win over the sixth-seeded Fighting Scots. With the win, DU secured its second-consecutive 20-win season and earned a berth in the semifinals of the conference tournament.
Wooster took the early edge with a 25-21 win in the opening set. Despite trailing 19-17 late in the match, the Fighting Scots rattled off eight of the final 10 points to pick up the four-point win. After dropping the opening set, Denison head coach Lynsey Whisner rallied the troops before the second set.
With the scored tied at 4-4, the Big Red went on a 7-1 run to take a six-point edge. During that span, DU got a pair of kills and two aces from freshman Rachele Lock and another kill from both junior Elsa Manning and sophomore Kenzie Kuhn. Wooster battled back from the early deficit, eventually taking a 14-13 lead. After an Elena Lein kill squared the match at 14-14, the two teams traded off the next 12 points to keep the scored deadlocked at 20-20. Lein broke the tie with a kill, while an attacking error by Catherine Benton and a block by Lein and senior Lauren Gustafson put the Big Red in front 23-20. Once again the Scots rallied to tie that contest at 24-24. After trading off the next two points, Gustafson logged a kill off an assist from junior Jessica Borsani to give DU a 26-25 edge. After scoring the go-ahead point, the senior ended the set with an ace served at Paige Parker.
The Scots jumped out to an early 4-0 lead in the third set after a quartet of miscues from Denison. Now facing a 14-6 deficit, things finally started clicking for the Big Red as they engineered a 6-1 run to shrink the margin to three and force Wooster to call a timeout. During that run, Manning, Gustafson and Brittany Perry all provided kills, while Borsani served up an ace. Wooster rebuilt an 18-12 lead out of the timeout, but 12-1 spurt gave the Big Red a 24-19 lead. DU's latest outburst featured two kills from Gustafson and another from both Lein and Lock. Junior libero Emily Marguerite also served up three-straight aces to give Denison its final lead of the set. Wooster broke up the run with a block by Megan Mey and Erica Skillman, but a kill from Lock off a Borsani assist gave the Big Red a 2-1 lead in the match.
Carrying all the momentum from their come-from-behind win in the previous set, Denison jumped out to a 12-5 lead. Trailing 5-4, DU took control of the net both offensively and defensively. Gustafson tied the match with a kill before Lock gave the Big Red the lead for good with a finisher of her own. A solo block by Kuhn and an ace by Marguerite forced Wooster to make a substitution. Denison kept things going with another Gustafson kill and a second solo block by Kuhn. DU capped off the eight-point run with a third kill by Gustafson and a Wooster attacking error. The Fighting Scots shrunk the deficit to 16-12, but a 9-3 run secured the four-set victory. Kuhn nailed down the final two points with a kill and another solo block, her third of the set.
Gustafson paced the DU attack with a season-high 15 kills and a .364 hitting percentage, while Lock and Lein added 12 and 11 finishers, respectively. Borsani and freshman Carly Newell combined for 48 of the Big Red's 54 assists. Marguerite posted 23 digs to go along with a career-high tying six aces. Junior Allie Becker and Lock also served up a pair of aces each. At the net, Kuhn finisehd with three solo blocks and a block assist, while Lein had a solo rejection and four block assists. Gustafson also logged four block assists in four sets.
The Big Red improves to 20-7, while the Scots fall to 9-22. Denison returns to Springfield on Saturday when they take on second-seeded Hiram, who blanked the No. 7 seed Kenyon 3-0, in the semifinals of the NCAC Tournament. Match time is scheduled for 12 p.m.