Some of the toughest, most gut-wrenching losses the Hillsdale College volleyball team has suffered over the past four years have come against its rival from the University of Findlay. And the first set ended in exactly that fashion, after nine extra points were needed to decide a winner.
Then, sets two, three and four happened.
The Chargers found a tougher presence at the net and played steady in all phases in earning a 3-1 victory over the Oilers in Findlay's Croy Gymnasium. The win was Hillsdale's fourth straight this season and 19th consecutive Great Midwest Athletic Conference win overall. The Chargers are 7-3 and 4-0 in the G-MAC, while Findlay fell to 8-2 and 3-1.
This was Hillsdale's first win in Findlay since October 12, 2013.
The first set followed the same frustrating script the Chargers have often found versus the Oilers in recent years. Findlay won a 34-32 marathon, the longest single set played by Hillsdale since the 25-point set rule went into effect in 2008. Neither team led by more than three points at any stage in the set in another, typically, tightly played contest.
But the Chargers showed impressive character and resiliency, coming out on fire in the second set, quickly taking a 7-2 lead. That early momentum kept as the Chargers eventually evened the match with a 25-14 win in the second set.
Set three followed a similar pattern, with the Chargers immediately grabbing a big early lead and maintaining it throughout. Hillsdale got up in the match 2-1 with a 25-15 win. In sets two and three, the Chargers held the Oilers to a combined team hitting percentage of .015. A big key to being successful against Findlay is by not allowing it to find a comfortable offensive rhythm. When Findlay's offense gets rolling, there are few in the country more potent. But Hillsdale played with discipline and a strong net presence, while the Oilers hurt themselves with 15 service errors in the match.
Set four saw Findlay improve its play, and climb into an 18-14 lead. But a quick 4-0 spurt by the Chargers tied the match and clearly swung momentum. Hillsdale clinched the match with an 11-3 run to conclude the fourth set, a 25-21 Charger win.
Hillsdale hit .264 as a team compared to .176 for Findlay. The Oilers did have one more kill as a team, but another big difference in the match came in their respective hitting errors. The Chargers committed eight fewer errors than the Oilers, which when combined with the serving point disparity, helped determine the match's outcome.
Senior Kara Vyletel had a nice bounce-back match with a season-high and team-high 16 kills for the Chargers. Fellow senior Paige VanderWall had been red hot coming into the match with three 20-kill matches in her last four. The Oilers naturally focused much of their defense on VanderWall's devastating hitting, and Vyletel stepped up and took full advantage of her opportunities. She consistently found open court and hit with the kind of velocity that made it tough for the Oilers to dig or block on a consistent basis.
VanderWall closed out the match strong and finished with 11 kills and 10 digs. Setter Lindsey Mertz was looking to VanderWall as the fourth set wore on, and she answered the bell, generating five of her 11 kills in the final set.
Mertz was active on the court with 43 assists and 4 digs for the Chargers. Junior libero Taylor Wiese was also excellent in the match with 21 digs and a pair of service aces. She was an effective counter to many of Findlay's hard-hit balls from the other side of the net.
Sophomore Madie Schider was also steady in the back row with 12 digs, while middle hitters Allyssa Van Wienen and Hannah Gates combined for 17 kills, terrific production from the middle of Hillsdale's front line. They combined for a hitting percentage of .466 in the match, giving the Chargers key production and efficiency from that position.
Photo: Todd Lancaster