Photo: Denver wins 3rd consecutive Summit Title and NCAA bid.
For the third year in a row, Denver (23-7, 13,3 Conference) won the Summit League 3-1 and will advance to the NCAA Tournament. Led by first-year head coach Tom Hogan, the Pioneers beat regular co-champion and league rival South Dakota (25-7, 13-3 Conference) at Hamilton Gym. The Pioneers started fast, dominating the Coyotes 25-12, 25-14 in the first two sets – eliminating much of the suspense. South Dakota tightened up the match with a narrow 25-22 3rd set win after a quick 7-1 start. The Pioneers came roaring back 25-18 in the 4th set to claim the title and automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Denver returned this season with nearly all their players from 2015, with the exception of graduated star Sarah Schmid. While Denver was expected to win the Summit League, they tied with South Dakota for the Summit League regular season title but won the head-to-head tiebreaker. Following yesterday’s match, coach Tom Hogan explained that Denver had, “a huge bullseye on our back…every team in our league battled us tough. We stayed focused-one match at a time.”
“We obviously didn’t come out and play our best volleyball today,” said South Dakota head volleyball coach Leanne Williamson. “Denver played extremely well, and I was very happy with how the team fought back in the third set.”
Tournament MVP middle blocker Ruth Okoye, outside hitter Nola Basey and libero Cassidy Rooke were named to the Summit League All-Tournament team. A few more Pioneers should have made the list – but no one is going to give this year’s squad anything. Hogan was passed up for Coach of the Year by South Dakota coach Leanne Williamson. Denver kills leader Kayla Principato was named to the Summit All-League team earlier in the week along with Basey and Okoye.
The Pioneers will advance to the NCAA Tournament, which starts on December 1st, but before that, they have a non-conference match against Long Beach State (19-10) next Saturday, November 26th before the NCAA announces the Tournament bracket.
Denver played Long Beach State last season on the road and were demolished by the 49ers (3-0) before the NCAA Tournament – so the Pioneers should be primed for the road trip back the Long Beach this year to measure their progress. Hogan expects Denver will travel west in the Tournament so they are using the Long Beach State match as a tune-up.
Denver’s upward trajectory in volleyball continues to be one of the many bright spots for Denver’s fall sports. Now, with a relatively low RPI (#124), can Denver pull an upset of a much higher-seeded foe in the first round of the NCAA Tournament? It will be a tough challenge but it’s not like they haven’t been in this position before.