WICHITA STATE 3, UTEP 0 (25-14, 25-22, 25-22)
EL PASO, TX – Wichita State thrived in difficult circumstances Tuesday, playing in front of UTEP’s third straight sellout crowd but never blinking as the Shockers posted the sweep and walked away as the champions of the 2023 NIVC.
The Shockers (26-8) hit .292 overall and had two more kills on 22 fewer attacks. The Miners close the season at 25-10.
Set 1 saw both teams get off the mark slowly, but Wichita State found traction first and enjoyed a 15-9 lead after a UTEP error and two kills from Sophia Rohling. The Miners tried another timeout when the lead expanded to 18-9, but WSU never wavered, making just three hitting errors in the frame.
Set 2 progressed to an 18-all tie, but two UTEP errors and two kills from sophomore Emerson Wilford launched the Shockers in front, 22-18. Wilford also got the kill that finished off the frame.
In Set 3, Wichita State again grabbed an important late lead at 22-18. Marian Ovalle pulled the Miners within 23-21, but Wilford had one more kill in her arsenal, as did Morgan Weber, who wrapped up the match. UTEP finished 10 service errors to just three for WSU.
Wilford was the only player to reach double figures in kills with 11; Izzi Strand had 29 assists and Gabi Maas came through with 12 digs. For UTEP, Alianza Darley had nine kills – Mattie Gantt dished out 17 assists and Kalia Kohler had 16 assists. Wichita State now leads the overall series 7-2.
After the match, the 2023 NIVC all-tournament team was announced:
Izzi Strand – Wichita State (MVP)
Gabi Maas – Wichita State
Morgan Stout – Wichita State
Alianza Darley – UTEP
Kaya Weaver – UTEP
Maria Clara Andrade – South Florida
Kira Thomsen – Montana State
UTEP 3, USF 0 (25-14, 26-24, 25-13)
EL PASO, TEXAS – Playing in front of another raucous crowd, UTEP swept South Florida in the Fab 4 showdown to advance to the 2023 NIVC title game, where the Miners will host Wichita State on Tuesday, December 12th at 9 p.m. ET.
UTEP dominated from the start of the match, leading the entire first set before taking it 25-14. In the second set, things were much tighter, with USF eventually gaining a 23-18 advantage and looking primed to tie the match up. UTEP scored eight of the final nine points in the set to take the frame, 26-24, to take complete control of the match.
In the third and final set, the Miners left absolutely no doubt. UTEP scored six of the first seven points of the set. The Bulls were never able to get closer than three points in the third set before the Miners sealed the deal with a convincing 25-13 score to secure the sweep.
As a team, UTEP hit a whopping .475 in the match while limiting USF to just .136 hitting. Alianza Darley led the Miners with 12 kills on .440 hitting, while Sakira Lacour and Danika Washington led the team defensively at the net with six and five blocks, respectively.
WICHITA STATE 3, MONTANA STATE 0 (25-21, 26-24, 25-20)
WICHITA, KS — Wichita State hit .313 overall and was able to answer every push from visiting Montana State, registering a sweep of the Bobcats to earn a berth in the 2023 NIVC title match.
The Shockers (25-8) will play winner of Sunday's Fab 4 contest between South Florida and UTEP for the championship early next week. The Bobcats end the season at 24-9.
Wichita State hit a gaudy .486 in Set 1 with 18 kills and one error, but it was hardly a walkthrough as Montana State kept it close, trailing just 21-20 on a kill from Jordan Radick. The Shockers called timeout and then rolled to the win, finishing with a kill by Sophia Rohling.
Set 2 saw Montana State ride a 4-0 run to an 18-16 lead, fueled by a kill from Camryn Greenwald and an ace from Kira Thomsen. Wichita State had the finishing kick however, taking the set on an ace from Izzi Strand and a block by Natalie Foster and Rohling.
The Shockers never trailed in Set 3, although Montana State closed within 20-18 on a kill by Greenwald. The match was secured with three straight late errors by MSU and a finishing kill from Foster.
Morgan Stout had 14 kills with just one error for Wichita State. Strand rang up 33 assists, Gabi Maas had 13 digs and Morgan Weber added 12 digs.
For Montana State, Thomsen had 11 kills with nine digs and Jourdain Kamps tallied 10 kills. Nellie Stevenson dished out 26 assists.
by Kyle Koso
Taking over as head coach of a college volleyball program means tackling a million modest tasks – what’s the gate code for the parking lot again? What grocery store should I use? Can someone from IT unfreeze my school laptop?
And then there’s the Godzilla of chores, standing in front of the roster you’ve inherited to introduce yourself and start the never-easy process of transition and putting your vision in front of total strangers who didn’t ask for this disruption of routine.
If there was any awkwardness for Matt Houk and his staff upon taking the reins at Montana State in early 2023, everyone on the Bobcats roster must have been more interested in getting on with the business at hand. And that’s led to a memory-packed run – a school record for wins at 24-8 overall and MSU’s first-ever postseason appearance, which sees the Bobcats in the 2023 NIVC Fab 4 and ready to take on Wichita State (24-8) on Saturday.
Houk had been a pivotal assistant coach with Minnesota for nine years prior; with an earlier six-year run as head coach at South Dakota, he already had the muscle memory needed for a new gig, but he made sure the groundwork in his thinking and planning was well established before he and his wife, associate head coach Jen Houk, made the move to Bozeman, MT.
“The great thing about my time at Minnesota and being around Hugh McCutcheon was living out how you take a program to the place you want. He told me, you have a very small window for how you’ll establish who you want to be as a leader, so you’ve got to know the things that are important to you,” said Houk, whose team has won three road matches in the NIVC vs. Pacific, Sacramento State and Wyoming. “I’d been thinking about what it would look like when a head coaching opportunity came again, and I’ve been making sure I knew what my program would stand for. We walked in the doors, sat the returners down and talked about the principles that make my world turn, and I’m hoping you can get on board. And if you can’t that’s OK, you didn’t sign up for this, and I’ll help you move on. But luckily, it was a group that looked me back in the eye and said, it looks great. I believed if we could do those things in Year 1, there was a chance for the team make an improvement on the path, let alone get better at volleyball. You have to have things you stand for.”
While the Bobcats had been essentially treading water for multiple years, they did show some spark in 2022, beating Big Sky Conference powerhouse Weber State twice on the road, including an upset in the league’s tournament. With a major portion of that group coming back in 2023, Montana State had some real intrigue on paper.
“We looked at film of Montana State from (last year) before we ventured down this road, and we could absolutely see the talent in the room. We were quite excited and saw players we could help mold and reach a new level of ability,” Houk said. “And we saw they won some good matches and lost some bad ones. One of the things we did really well in Minnesota was being really steady, being consistent over a long period of time. You don’t want to have these big waves you’re riding – sure, you’ll have great moments and lower moments, but you hope the bandwidth is not really big. You’ll never be perfect, but could they be more consistent? You have to improve your repeatability, raise your baseline of mastery that (holds up) in big moments. This is really a unique team, 20 athletes on a roster who have a genuine care and concern for each other.”
This season ended on a very sour note in the Big Sky tournament, with MSU dropping a five-set throwdown against Weber State in the title match, but the Bobcats were able to reset mentally when the NIVC option arrived. It’s a roster that’s evolved as a competitive handful over time, anchored and defined by senior Kira Thomsen, who has 539 kills (tied for No. 7 nationally in D-I) and a program-record 1,636 kills.
“Kira is a really solid volleyball player; more than that, she’s grown so much as a leader. She used to lead by voice a lot, and now she’s added how to do it by example,” Houk said. “To come in every day, do the work deliberately, a kid who was already really good but committed to making a change. When you have one of your best players showing, I’m trying to get better … that sends a message to the whole program, that the goal is to get better along the way. That’s the thing she’s done that’s been better than any stat line, any night she’s put the team on her back. Everyone has improved around her because of the way she’s chosen about doing her job.”
The offense is run with touch and skill by JUCO transfer and junior setter Nellie Stevenson, who has 1,023 assists; sophomore Madilyn Siebler has 263 kills and classmate Camryn Greenwald has added 199 kills. Montana State has definitely leaned on junior Jourdain Kamps (327 kills) and sophomore libero Lauren Lindseth (488 digs) for peak performances.
“Jourdain as an opposite hitter, she’s another attacker we can lean on. She balances the court with Kira, allows us to go pin to pin and stretch the defense out,” Houk said. “Not only has she been a good attacker, but her block and serve and defense has been really impressive. She’s on the court all the time for us and does a bit of everything.
“Lauren all year has been a rock out there, super steady. She doesn’t necessarily put up flashy numbers, but she’s at four or five digs every set, she serves a great ball, a high ace rate, and she makes sure the other passers don’t have to cover big chunks of the court. When our setter digs, she puts up a very hittable ball, a good thing for sure when teams try to mess with your offense by taking your setter out.”
Replacing Thomsen next year will certainly be a hurdle for the Bobcats, but scaling that obstacle will certainly be more manageable given the lessons and learning that has come from their NIVC trek. Houk has the attitude, shared by his players, that while the close call in missing out on the NCAA tournament might sting, the NIVC is their chance to punch back and be ready for more, someday.
“You’ve got goals and aspirations as a new coach – I very much thought Montana State could be near the top of the conference, year in and year out, and could play in the postseason. To have an opportunity in Year 1 is really cool,” he added. “The NIVC recognized our body of work and saw how well we were playing down the stretch, so to get the at-large bid was a big deal for the program. Montana State had never played in the postseason before. I think it’s an adventure and one you have to lean into. You win a match and hey, you don’t know where you’re going next. Then you’re told, OK, you’ve got a flight tomorrow night.
“We told the team, who knows how many times in your life that you’ll have these types of experiences. It’s uncomfortable at times, and sure, it would have been great sleeping in our own beds, but that’s not our lot right now. We have another chance to compete together, in someone else’s gym. These are experiences that build what your program is about. We embrace every moment, and I feel almost in debt to the NIVC for the opportunity to show what Montana State is all about. You could send us to the moon, and we’d be ecstatic.”
SOUTH FLORIDA 3, GEORGIA SOUTHERN 0 (25-22, 25-12, 26-24)
STATESBORO, GA – South Florida hit .377 overall and authored a sweep of host Georgia Southern to advance to the Fab 4 of the 2023 NIVC.
The Bulls (22-11) will play at UTEP for their next match, which is set for 3:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, Dec. 10. The Eagles close the season at 23-9.
South Florida hit .371 in Set 1, with Maria Clara Andrade ringing up nine kills in the frame. She pounded home the final two points and shared a block with Tizi Puljiz that put the Bulls up 22-21, after Georgia Southern had taken a late lead. Set 2 was USF all the way with the Bulls hitting .517 with 18 kills and just three errors along with four aces.
Set 3 was a close affair, with Chamblee Russell’s kill giving the Eagles a rare lead at 13-12. It went back and forth the rest of the way, with Puljiz ringing up a solo block and kill to close out the night.
Andrade finished with 22 kills and 12 digs, and Marta Cvitkovic added nine kills. USF junior Caroline Dykes rang up 37 assists, moving her over the 3,000 mark in her Bulls career. Miya Thomas came through with 14 digs.
For Georgia Southern, Reagan Barth had 11 kills and seven digs. Kirsten Barrett had 14 assists and Callaway Cason added 10 assists.
UTEP 3, CLEMSON 1 (27-25, 25-17, 14-25, 25-19)
EL PASO, TX — UTEP set a program record for attendance with 3,271, and the Miners rewarded the fans with a victory over Clemson to advance out of the Great 8 of the 2023 NIVC.
The Miners (24-9), who have four of the top five single-game attendance numbers in the modern-day NIVC, will face Georgia Southern or South Florida in the Fab 4. The Tigers end the season at 19-14.
Clemson had a 17-13 lead in the opening set, but the competition elevated with ties at 20-all, 23-all and 25-all. The Miners seized the set on a kill from Danika Washington and an ace from Kalia Kohler. Set 2 saw UTEP take a 14-9 lead on skill from Torrance Loves, with the lead growing to 17-11 on a kill by Alianza Darley.
The Tigers never trailed in Set 3 and won decisively, the final point coming on an ace from McKenna Gildon. Set 4 was closed out for UTEP after a Lovesee kill gave the Miners a solid 16-11 lead — Mia McGrath’s kill did pull the Tigers closer, 21-18, but UTEP wrapped it up on a kill by Kaya Weaver.
For the Miners, Marian Ovalle had 13 kills; Lovesee had 11 kills and both Darley and Weaver came through with 10 kills. Mattie Gantt had a double-double with 24 assists and 11 digs, Kohler added 20 assists and Alyssa Sianez came through with 13 digs.
For Clemson, Adria Powell had 12 kills and Kateryna Tkachenko notched 11 kills. Mckenna Slavik had 32 assists and Devan Taylor added 15 digs. The programs had never met before 2023, but they faced each other on Sept. 16 when Clemson won 3-2, coming back after dropping the first two sets.
fMONTANA STATE 3, WYOMING 2 (22-25, 25-22, 21-25, 25-23, 15-8)
LARAMIE, WY – The Montana State Bobcats completed the comeback on the road to knock off Wyoming, 3-2, and advance to the Fab 4 of the 2023 NIVC.
The Bobcats showed incredible resilience and toughness playing in a hostile road environment. After dropping a close first set, the Bobcats responded to tie it in the second set. A close third set went Wyoming’s way, however, and Montana State found itself with its back against the wall.
Senior outside hitter Kira Thomsen would not let the Bobcats go quietly into the night. Thomsen flustered Wyoming’s defense all night, finishing with 24 kills on .383 hitting, while also tallying 10 digs. Junior outside hitter Jourdain Kamps added 12 kills for Montana State, which hit .294 as a team.
In the pivotal fourth set, Wyoming jumped out to a 4-0 lead over Montana State, but the Bobcats rallied to tie the game at 8-8. The two teams exchanged points, with neither team able to create separation. Montana State briefly enjoyed a three-point lead at 20-17, but Wyoming quickly scored the next three points to tie it at 20-20. With the set tied at 22-22, Thomsen registered kills on two of the next three points for Montana State, to help the Bobcats claim the fourth set and force the fifth set with all the momentum.
Montana State took that momentum and ran with it in the final set, jumping out to an early lead, which it never relinquished. The Bobcats will take on Wichita State, which won it’s Great Eight match 3-0 over Drake earlier in the night, next in the NIVC Fab 4.
WICHITA STATE 3, DRAKE 0 (30-28, 27-25, 25-21)
WICHITA, KS — Wichita State rode very productive offensive efforts from Natalie Foster (12 kills, no errors) and Morgan Stout (14 kills, two errors) in a sweep of Drake in the Great 8 round of the 2023 NIVC.
The Shockers (24-8) will face Wyoming or Montana State in the Fab 4, while the Bulldogs (the 2022 NIVC runner-up) close the season at 24-11.
Tension started brewing early as Set 1 ran long — Morgan Stout’s kill gave the Shockers a 22-20 lead, but the deal wasn’t sealed until kills were registered from Morgan Weber and Izzi Strand. Set 2 went past regulation as well, with neither team able to build a lead larger than two points. Wichita State secured that one as well, concluding with kills from Natalie Foster and Weber.
Strand closed with 44 assists; Gabi Maas added 17 digs and Weber closed with 11 digs. Wichita State hit .298 overall, .400 in the third set.
For Drake, Haley Bush had a double-figure kill total halfway into the second set — she finished with 14 kills. Macey Daufeldt had 14 kills and Taylor Oberpriller chipped in with 10 kills. Addison Beagle added 24 assists and 10 digs, Madison Geise delivered 20 assists and Jada Wills had 13 digs.
The teams have a long history dating to Wichita State’s run in the Missouri Valley Conference— the Shockers now lead the all-time series 50-17.
by Kyle Koso
Sure, everyone loves a challenge, but if the daily grind drives you to the ground, that can get a bit tiresome.
For Chad Willis and his coaching staff, taking over the machinations for the Georgia Southern volleyball program required copious time and energy that got expended well before signs of a real payoff. A tough debut run in 2019 was followed by the mess of the COVID year, enough adversity to seriously tap into one’s reserve of patience.
But the rewards are starting to show up everywhere, in the talent base of the roster and the ability of the squad to hang tough upon the competitive turf of the Sun Belt Conference. The latest evidence? – two victories to kick off the 2023 NIVC, where the Eagles (23-8) will play host to South Florida (21-11) on Thursday in the Great 8 in hopes of reaching the Fab 4 semifinals.
This is the first 20-win season for Georgia Southern since 2013. Ahead of Willis taking the job, the Eagles averaged 20 losses over each of four seasons, and Year 1 of the new staff saw another difficult campaign at 7-20. In 2021, the sun finally started to peek out for the staff.
“We knew we had our work cut out for us. In my time at (Appalachian State) before that, I had a front-row seat and saw Georgia Southern up close and personal,” said Willis, whose team topped Winthrop in five sets in Round 1 of the NIVC and followed it with a sweep of East Carolina, on ECU’s home floor. “I was familiar with where they were, and I recognized it was a place that had a ton of tradition and great history. For us as a staff, we wanted to build culture and lay a foundation – if we could do that, at some point in Years 3-5, the recruiting would catch up with the culture. And here in Year 5, 100 percent of the roster is who we recruited, you’re seeing the fruits of that. It’s a connected group, proud of who they are and how they represent. It’s been a big step forward this year.”
A step that found early footing in the summer when the Eagles traveled and played in South America, a classic example of team building that happens when you share experience from a road trip.
“We took a trip to Argentina for 10 days in early June; what a great opportunity for us,” Willis said. “We could take the freshmen, so we had our entire group, staff and team, and built a lot of solid connections. That trip served as a great catalyst for us heading into the season. We went through the (non-conference schedule) and felt like the first two weekends at home, we looked pretty good.
“We went on the road, lost one we maybe shouldn’t have against UTSA but turned around and beat a quality San Jose State team and then Campbell in five sets. That’s when I started first feeling like we had a group that responds well, knows how to compete. When we beat (Old Dominion) at their place I thought, well, we’ve got something we can work with here.”
Teams that stick in the memory are usually made up of surprising newcomers and/or veterans who reach their competitive ceiling, and the Eagles are no exception. Freshman Reagan Barth earned first-team all-Sun Belt honors and leads the team in kills (342) and aces (40), while junior Jillian Gray emerged after not playing much in 2022 to ring up 279 kills.
“Reagan, the load she’s carried for us, has been huge. We knew she had the ability and potential, but I’m not sure coming in I expected this much, so fast,” Willis said. “She’s been at an elite level and not just on the floor – her demeanor off the court, in practice. She doesn’t play or act like a freshman and has gained a lot of trust and respect.
“Jillian Gray, you’re seeing someone who has starting to come into her own, development-wise, as a junior. She put in a ton of great work in the off-season, tracking back to the spring, in terms of how she attacked the weight room, nutrition, taking care of her body. It’s manifested into what you are seeing on the court. And again, a kid who comes in every day, smile on her face, says let me get to work and do my job, encourage teammates but compete and get after it, she’s the epitome.”
Switching to a 6-2 offense this season worked out nicely as senior Callaway Cason (522 assists) and sophomore Kirsten Barrett (682 assists) played every set of the 31 matches, in step and in sync. Defensively, junior Ashlyn Lovett has always been a determined force, starting with her Sun Belt freshman of the year effort and extending through the Winthrop win, where she set a program record with 45 digs. Megan Vickery has come on late in 2023 as a difficult obstacle for teams in the middle.
“And for sure, Chamblee Russell (219 kills this year), playing like a senior, hair on fire, and wanting to go out on a good note,” Willis said. “Winthrop presented a complicated matchup with how well they defend. We knew they wanted to grind plays out, extend rallies, make us beat ourselves. We were patient, stayed the course, and I’m proud of the kids for never hitting the panic button. We are battled-tested, and this late, every team we play is good. We won it defensively, then played cleaner against a good ECU team and got the sweep.”
Thursday’s match with South Florida will be the fourth all-time between the programs; the Bulls lead the series 3-0 with the last meeting coming in 2008. Georgia Southern is hoping to have the services of Barth, a game-time call after being injured in the Winthrop match.
NIVC HAS UTILITY – Willis on the positives of playing in the NIVC event: “What a great tournament and opportunity, and a great thing for our sport. I’m a little upset that more teams aren’t taking this opportunity to utilize it for everything that it is. For our seniors, three from our first recruiting class, this is a culminating experience for them and all the time and energy they’ve put it. To be able to go out on a ride like this speaks volumes. On the flip side, we’ve got a lot of key pieces coming back, and we know the advantage of extending the season and setting the standard of not being a team that just aspires to catch lightning in a bottle for a week at a conference tournament. We are trying to build toward sustained excellence, where we are training and competing in December. This tournament helps set that up and to use it as a teaching moment, where you understand you want to be playing in December.”
SOUTH FLORIDA 3, ST. JOHN’S 2 (23-25, 21-25, 25-19, 27-25, 16-14)
QUEENS, NY — After falling behind 2-0, South Florida fought all the way back to move past host St. John’s and earn a berth in the Great 8 of the 2023 NIVC.
The Bulls (21-11) will play at Georgia Southern (23-8) next week; that match is set for 6 p.m. ET on Thursday, Dec. 7. The Red Storm close the season at 24-11.
Set 1 went back and forth; at 23-all, St. John’s closed our with a kill from Magda Stambrowska and an ace by Bree Martin. The drama carried though into Set 2, with Eleonora Tosi's kill and a USF error putting the Red Storm up, 2-0.
South Florida masterminded an impressive comeback, tying the match at two sets apiece with a gutty fourth set that was secured in the end on two kills from Maria Clara Andrade.
In Set 5, a kill by Giorgia Walther pulled St. John’s into a 14-14 tie; after a timeout, South Florida wrapped it up on a kill from Buse Hazan and an error by the Red Storm.
Leading South Florida was Andrade with a career-best 28 kills; Hazan rang up 17 kills along with 10 digs and Marta Cvitkovic had 10 kills. Caroline Dykes had 60 assists, tying her career high, and Miya Thomas added 15 digs.
For St. John’s, Walther had 17 kills and both Erin Jones and Lucrezia Lodi had 10 kills. Wiktoria Kowalczyk had 36 assists; Rashanny Solano Smith added 15 digs.