Torero volleyball loses in NCAA Tournament
Another year without a deep NCAA tournament run became a reality for the women’s volleyball team at the University of San Diego last week. After losing in the second round last year, the Toreros were looking for another chance to make their mark in the NCAA tournament. Unfortunately, the 2016 season did not yield better results. Playing in the West Coast Conference (WCC) inevitably leads fans and pundits from Power 5 schools to question the merits of the Toreros’ victories. Despite their No. 14 national ranking entering Friday’s NCAA Tournament first round bout with the Baylor Bears, the ladies of USD seemed to be entering the arena with something to prove.
Unfortunately, the Toreros were unable to prove their naysayers wrong, as they fell to the Bears in a contentious five-set match at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on Dec. 2. In a season that saw the Toreros at one point climb into the top five of the American Volleyball Coaches Association rankings, a first round exit in the NCAA Tournament serves as an unceremonious conclusion to a once-promising season.
Along with their 24-5 record entering Friday’s festivities, USD also featured the WCC Player of the Year. Redshirt senior Lisa Kramer took home the honor on Nov. 28, making her the 10th player in school history to receive the prestigious Player of the Year distinction. Kramer’s win also makes her the fifth Torero to accept the honor since 2008.
Although she was ultimately disappointed with how the season ended, head coach Jennifer Petrie took some time to reflect on her team’s 2016 campaign.
“The 2016 season was filled with special victories and magical memories,” Petrie said. “This team had wins over top programs that we have never beaten before. The wins against Stanford and UCLA will certainly stand out in my mind, and I am certain that sustaining a 5th place ranking will forever be cherished in the minds of each player.”
The match with Baylor came down to the wire. After winning two of the first three sets, the Toreros looked to close out the Bears in the pivotal fourth set. Both teams clung to a lead at different points of the action, and they headed down the stretch knotted up at 18-18. From there, Baylor—who came into Pauley Pavilion with a 21-11 record—took control of the match by seizing momentum and scoring four unanswered points. This run caused San Diego head coach Jennifer Petrie to use her final timeout, but the Bears were able to vanquish the Toreros anyway, taking the set by a score of 25-20.
Petrie spoke about this four-point barrage her team received from Baylor and how it affected the psyche of her players.
“Volleyball is a game of momentum,” Petrie said. “It is a sport where you can feel firmly in control of a game, and then find yourself fighting to stay ahead in the next game. With rally scoring, anytime you let a team gain a significant lead it is very difficult to regain your position. I don’t think that particular run determined the momentum for the entire match, but certainly the confidence and momentum was on their side.”
In the decisive fifth set, both USD and Baylor came out of the gates strong, with neither team able to get an advantage over the other. With the score tied at 8-8, the Bears had another spell that left the Toreros searching for answers. A 5-1 run moved the score to 13-9 and put the underdog Bears in a position to pull off an impressive first round upset. However, the Toreros brought some drama of their own to the hallowed court in Westwood. Refusing to go quietly into the night, USD scored four straight points of their own to even the score at 13 and move fans to the edge of their seats.
Alas, the Bears took the match’s all-important final two points after a much-needed time out from their head coach Ryan McGuyre. These final two points not only marked the end of the match and a berth in the second round for Baylor, but also a crushing end to the season for USD.
Earlier this season, Mirin Fader of ESPNw, a branch of ESPN dedicated to women’s sports, came to Alcalá Park for a story about the Toreros’ volleyball team. There is an anecdote in the article about a motto that had become a prominent part of the team’s locker room white board. “Champion or Chump,” the message read, followed by “The Choice is Yours.”
Fader interviewed junior setter Kristen Gengenbacher for that piece. Gengenbacher’s optimism during the segment now seems to be equal parts prescient and heart-wrenching.
“It’s in our hands,” Gengenbacher said. “We have the ability to go out there and take it and fight for it.”
A little more than a week after that story was published, the Toreros season has come to a premature end. With the possibility of a championship run in their hands, the little school in Linda Vista failed to capitalize, playing into the hands of those who said a program of its size would never be able to compete with the behemoths of collegiate athletics. The reality now is that, once again, the Toreros have found themselves in the chump category.
Written by Matthew Roberson, Sports Editor