Chris Gravel is fast becoming the Phil Jackson of Division II volleyball coaches.
Like Jackson, Gravel has pulled off the rare feat of repeat three-peat championships. Gravel and the Charger volleyball team captured the 2019 Great Midwest Athletic Conference title thanks to a 3-1 victory over Tiffin University Saturday night at the Dawn Tibbetts Potter Arena.
Hillsdale, ranked 11th in the nation and sporting a 26-3 overall record, earns an automatic berth to the NCAA Division II Midwest Regional, which will take place the first weekend in December at a site yet to be determined.
Gravel had previously led Hillsdale to three straight GLIAC tournament championships from 2009-11. This was the sixth conference tournament championship in Hillsdale history, all coming within the past 11 seasons. Five of those titles have been won at home.
The Chargers have won all three G-MAC tournaments they've played in, as the No. 1 seed and host school in all three. They defended their home court in this title contest despite a big test from the No. 2 seeded Dragons.
Tiffin played extremely well in the first set, especially with its defense and passing, and edged the Chargers 28-26 to to take a 1-0 lead. The Dragons kept that play going into the second set, leading as late as 15-13.
That's when Hillsdale upped its level of play, going on a 10-2 run that eventually resulted in a 25-19 win in the second set, tying the match at 1.
Momentum was now all Hillsdale as it rolled to a 25-13 win in set 3 to take a 2-1 lead.
Helping to swing the match in Hillsdale's favor was the inspired play of senior Dani Jones. She didn't start the match, but Gravel went to her off the bench and did she ever deliver. She finished the match with 10 kills, providing an extra dimension on offense the Dragons simply could not contain.
Set 4 was closely played until the Chargers pulled away late. Karoline Shelton's 18th kill of the match was the championship winner, as she powered it through a double block for a 25-20 Charger win.
Hillsdale appeared to wear Tiffin down over the course of the match even though the Dragons showed admirable effort from start to finish. Hillsdale held Tiffin to a hitting percentage of .087 in the match while the Chargers hit .243. Hillsdale held a big edge in team kills (63-49) and digs (92-83) and was led defensively by its all-world libero Taylro Wiese.
Wiese answered big Dragon hits time after time, recording 34 digs. Tiffin brought some big swings at the Hillsdale defense, and she was there, just like she has the past four years.
Offensively, the G-MAC Player of the Year, Allyssa Van Wienen, more than lived up to her title, finishing with 19 kills and a .471 hitting percentage. She added 3 total blocks, and anytime she had the ball set her way, was hitting it straight down.
Shelton was everywhere, just as she has all year, finishing with 18 kills and 13 digs and a .314 hitting percentage, an impressive number for an outside hitter in a championship match.
Junior setter Lindsey Mertz kept an aggressive mindset throughout with 53 assists, 11 digs and 2 kills. She provided a big moment when she answered a setter-dump-kill by Tiffin with one of her own during the second set.
WORDS AND PHOTO: Brad Monastiere