With the title match of the 2019 National Invitational Volleyball Championship set to go – it’s Georgia Tech at South Dakota on Tuesday (8 p.m. ET) – there’s not much shock that these two programs are the ones left standing.
Both the Yellow Jackets (25-8) and the Coyotes (31-2) were on the cusp of NCAA tournament berths, and both have turned the disappointment of missing that moment into strong performances in the NIVC. Georgia Tech is 17-1 in its last 18 matches and has dropped just two sets in the NIVC, while the Coyotes have topped 30 victories and are a flawless 14-0 at home.
Another common aspect between the teams is the comparative youth of the roster. For Georgia Tech, freshman Julia Bergmann and sophomore Marilla Brambilla are driving forces, with Brambilla hammering a career-high 25 kills in the semifinal win over TCU. Those two lead the Yellow Jackets in kills, with sophomore Mikaila Dowd third on the list; even the setter (Matti McKissock) is a sophomore and has averaged better than 11 assists per set.
For South Dakota, freshman Elizabeth Juhnke has a team-high 505 kills, and redshirt sophomore setter Madison Jurgens is averaging nearly 12 assists per set with a total of 1,411 for the year. After reaching the NCAA tournament in 2018, the Coyotes looked well on their way to a repeat appearance after running the table in the Summit League regular season, but the team was upset by Omaha in the league tourney.
“We all had expectations, as does everybody, about making the NCAA Tournament, and when we didn’t it was important for them to understand that it was OK to be disappointed,” said head coach Leanne Williamson, who is in her sixth season. “When we came back to work, we said we’d shift our focus to new goals, set new expectations, and they did just that. It really didn’t come from me. People who have been here and know how good this program is, they said let’s go win this NIVC.
“One of our mottos all year is saying, let’s go 1-0. Not focusing on the future, not thinking about the past, take care of what we can, the one point, the one game, the one match. It took us that first match to get back into it, to play at the high level again.”
South Dakota’s roster also embraced the idea of giving the seniors another arena to show the depth of their commitment, while younger players got more time to play under the pressure of one-and-done tournament volleyball.
“For our seniors, it’s one more opportunity to play in the Coyote uniform, and for the underclassmen, it’s an opportunity to keep making history in the program,” Williamson said. “I think the NIVC is an incredible opportunity to play volleyball at a high level, to play in a tournament style where you fight every night to get the chance to play on. There’s a lot of great things that can come from this, and our team is up for the challenge. They’re excited to bring in an excellent Georgia Tech team as well, and to compete against a great opponent, in front of our home fans.”
South Dakota dropped its first set Saturday against Tulsa in the semifinals, something that had to rattle the team as well as the 1,300 fans looking to keep the NIVC run alive. But the Coyotes got it tied back up and won the final two sets in dominant fashion, 25-15, 25-13.
“We talked a lot with this team about how resilient we are. Dropping that first set, they were frustrated, but it made us determined to make the changes we needed,” Williamson said. “We won the second set, but we weren’t necessarily happy with the way we were playing, so to find a way to win when we weren’t playing at our highest level says a lot about the team.
“We also talk about getting better as the match goes on … you can pick up things when you see it in person. The third and fourth sets, we went on some big runs; Tulsa made some errors, but we forced them into some of that, which is what you want to see. Some of the obstacles gave us an opportunity and were good lessons to learn. We’re willing to do the hard things to move forward.”