NEWBERG, Ore. - Pushed to the fifth set by a charged up George Fox team, injury-depleted Pacific Lutheran took a 15-11 victory and with it grabbed both the Northwest Conference championship and an automatic berth in the NCAA Division III regional tournament.
With the heart-stopping victory, the 14th-ranked Lutes improve to 20-5 overall and more importantly to 14-2 in the conference, leaving them all alone at the top of the standings. The NWC title is PLU's seventh since the program won its first in 1999.
With the conference crown comes an appearance at the Division III regional tournament which is scheduled to begin late next week at a site to be named. Pacific Lutheran will make its eighth tournament appearance in 14 years.
It wasn't Pacific Lutheran's prettiest win, but it felt great to head coach Kevin Aoki and his team. "Wow," said Aoki. "This is a tribute to our girls battling through adversity. It's a tough league. There are a lot of good teams in it. The difference is that we've been there before and we know how to react. Now we can enjoy at least another week of our journey together."
The Lutes played a very solid first set, hitting .250 as a team and getting four kills in five attack attempts from Becca Holtgeerts. It was one of those four kills, followed by a Haley Urdahl finish, that helped PLU establish a 13-9 lead after the teams battled at even terms in the early going.
George Fox rallied with six unanswered points and then PLU responded with three of its own to tie it at 16-16. The Lutes trailed 19-18 when they went on a four-point run to grab a lead they would not relinquish. Setter Brianna Vincent opened it with her only kill of the match, and two George Fox attack errors sandwiched around Bethany Huston's kill provided the Lutes with the momentum they needed.
The host Bruins raced out to a 14-7 lead in the second set, only to see PLU continue to whittle away at its deficit until tying the score at 19-19. Down the stretch, Lucy Capron had two kills and Payton Shrum added a block to put the set in GFU's column.
PLU and George Fox battled on even terms for much of the third set, and in fact it wasn't until Amy Wooten's kill gave the Lutes an 18-15 advantage that either team had led by as many as three points. Wooten added another kill to up the lead to 21-16 and the Lutes closed it out from there.
The fourth set was much like the second, only it was PLU that took the early lead only to see the Bruins battle back before finally taking a 17-16 lead on a block by Erin Campbell. They scored eight of the final 11 points, including solo blocks from Kylee Adderson and Payton Shrum, to tie it at 2-2 and bring about the deciding set. Pacific Lutheran hit -.120 in the fourth set.
The Lutes were 4-2 in five-set matches, including a 2-1 record against conference foes, prior to tonight's contest. They improved both of those marks, but not before having to hold off a furious Bruins comeback from a 10-4 deficit. George Fox eventually got the score to 10-8 and later to 12-11 before PLU scored the set's final three points on kills by Huston, Urdahl and Holtgeerts.
After a slow start, Wooten ended up leading the Lutes with 12 kills, while Urdahl, Holtgeerts and Huston all added nine. Vincent had 36 assists and Urdahl added a career-high 27 assists. The Lutes finished with 11 team blocks, including five solo blocks and two block assists by Huston. Blair Bjorkman contributed four service aces. PLU finished with a .082 attack percentage in the match.
For George Fox, Lucy Capron ended up with 18 kills followed by Tiffany Burk with 14 and Campbell with 11. Payton Shrum had 46 assists and Campbell led her team with two solo blocks and five block assists.
Pacific Lutheran will find out who it will play and where at regionals when the NCAA tournament field will be announced at 8 a.m. Monday. A video stream of the announcement program is available at http://www.ncaa.com/live/player?vid=2012/561&date=2012/11/05.
- PLU -