Video: Derek Stamberger
There is simply no other way to put it:
"This has been one of the finest seasons I have been a part of," head coach Carolyn Condit said in her 35th year at Miami. "We knew we had something special because of the depth we had, the level of athleticism and leadership."
While the end result of back-to-back Mid-American Conference Tournament championships wasn't achieved, hope surrounded the team as members consoled one another. Senior outside hitter Stela Kukoc gathered all the freshman after the match.
"A lot of people were not expecting us to be here," Kukoc said. "Honestly, we knew we could do good things, but I don't think we expected to be this good. There were times where we didn't know if we were going to be able to make it to this championship game, but I'm so proud of this whole entire team."
The RedHawks came a long way from the beginning of the season. Originally picked to finish fourth in the East in the MAC coaches' preseason poll, the team led the conference the entire season.
Miami entered the MAC Tournament ranked second behind Bowling Green, who was ousted from the tournament by eventual champion Eastern Michigan.
Miami's road to the final began Saturday in a thrilling 3-2 comeback victory over No. 3 Ball State.
The key was outside hitter Sophie Riemersma's 29 kills, 17 digs and six services aces, all career highs. She came within one kill of the Miami single-match record set by Wendy Tepe in 1985.
Down 0-2 heading into the third, the intensity changed on the Miami sideline. Leading 18-12, the RedHawks surrendered a 9-1 run which put Ball State up 19-20. Junior middle hitter Margaret Payne contributed four kills in six points which paved the way to a 25-23 set win for Miami.
In the fourth, the RedHawks did not give up the lead, but the Cardinals kept within four points the entire set. MAC Freshman of the Year Gaby Harper had seven kills while fellow freshman Riemersma added six en route to a 26-24 win.
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Riemersma took control of the fifth in both attacking and serving, providing eight of the 15 set points. During a 9-0 run which put Miami up 14-4, she had three service aces. Harper stamped the comeback on a kill with an assist from freshman setter Louise Comerford.
"I thought Sophie was smart and played beyond her years," Condit said. "I don't think she was ever in this type of pressure before [...] she handled it really well."
Harper and Payne finished with 17 and 16 kills, respectively, while Comerford assisted on 30 points. Ball State's junior Amber Seaman out-set her younger sister, Miami's Morgan Seaman 49-36.
After the nail-biter Saturday, the VolleyHawks were loose for Championship Sunday, as they clapped into the locker room to Usher's "Yeah!" after warm ups.
The team awaited No. 5 Eastern Michigan who was playing in its fourth match in as many days.
In the first set, the Miami defense held EMU's outside hitter Jordan Smith to three-of-10 attacks and added two blocks in a 25-19 RedHawk win. Sophomore outside hitter Sarah Wojick had back-to-back kills which added to a 6-0 run late in the set.
The Eagles bounced back by not giving up the lead in the second set, winning 25-21. Outside hitter Cassie Haut had six kills and two solo blocks in the effort.
EMU and Miami traded points back-and-forth in the third until Riemersma contributed three consecutive kills to give the RedHawks a 17-13 lead. Two kills from Payne and an error by Eagles' middle blocker April Houston put Miami up two sets to one.
A spirited, Speedo squad of Miami men's swimming and diving members led the crowd in chants and taunts towards EMU's players.
But the jeers didn't phase Eastern Michigan, as it faced a do-or-die situation. It dominated the third set 25-15. The Eagles defense had two blocks, five aces and held Riemersma and Payne to sub-.200 hitting percentages.
EMU led 8-2 early and, eventually, the difference was 21-10. Houston went 5-for-6 on kills, and Smith joined the barrage with three of her own.
Before the championship-deciding set, Miami sophomore libero Abigail Huser implored her team to fight through and claim the last set, something the RedHawks had accomplished five times throughout conference play.
The set came out even at two but broke open once a Smith kill found the middle of the RedHawks' defense. Now electrified, the visiting Eagles' crowd rocked Millett Hall and helped EMU gain a 9-3 lead. Another Smith kill forced Condit to use her final timeout as desperation set in.
A pair of Kukoc kills brought Miami within six, but a kill to the heart of the defense from Haut brought the Mid-American Conference trophy to Ypsilanti for the first time in the program's history.
Haut finished with 19 kills, five digs, three aces and the tournament MVP award. Smith added 16 kills and five digs.
For Miami, Payne and Riemersma ended with double-digit kills and earned First Team All-MAC Tournament Team honors.
While dissatisfied with the loss, the Miami roster stood and applauded as the champions' names rang over the public address system.
"We haven't lost too many times on our home court," Condit said. "I expect them to be as visually upset as they are. This was the most emotional match of the year because of how it culminated and what we miss getting with the NCAA Tournament bid."
Yet, the year may not be over for Miami, who waits for Sunday to hear if they receive a bid to the National Invitational Volleyball Championship (NIVC). The tournament features 32 to 40 of the top teams that do not receive bids to the NCAA tournament.
"When you put a lot in, it's painful to not get what you want," Condit said. "They'll be okay. They'll have another opportunity to play this year."
The bids will be revealed late Sunday night, shortly after the NCAA Tournament bracket is released.