Leopards move into national championship match

The University of La Verne volleyball team will play for the national championship, rallying from a 2-1 deficit to produce a five-set triumph against top-ranked Juniata College.

La Verne took down the nation’s #1 team by delivering a 3-2 (20-25, 25-18, 13-25, 25-22, 17-15) triumph over Juniata in the NCAA Semifinal round Friday at the Shirk Center in Bloomington, Illinois.   The Leopards will face either Emory or Ohio Northern in the final scheduled for a 7 pm CST start (5 pm PST) on Saturday .

With the win, the Leopards reach the championship match for the first time since 2001, when they captured the school’s third national title in volleyball.  Ironically, it was also La Verne’s first win over Juniata since the 2001 NCAA Semifinals when the Leos topped the Eagles in five games on Dec. 1, 2001 in Whitewater, Wisconsin.  The victory also avenged a 3-1 defeat to Juniata earlier this season on Oct. 10 at La Verne.

In a roller-coaster fifth set that produced 11 ties and five lead changes, La Verne took a 9-6 lead only to watch the Eagles run off four straight points to retake the lead at 10-9.  A Crista Jones kill followed by a Rebecca Villanueva service ace and Eagle ball handling error allowed the Leos to reclaim the advantage at 12-10.  It wouldn’t last as Juniata took the next three points – thanks in part to two La Verne hitting errors – to lead 13-12. 

The two teams traded the next two points and at 14-13, Juniata held a match point to reach its fourth final in five years.  But a Brianna Gonzales kill tied the contest at 14-14, and a Juniata attack error on the ensuing point gave La Verne a match point at 15-14.  A kill by National Player of the Year Amber Thomas denied the Leopards momentarily as the teams were again deadlocked at 15-15.  Gonzales returned the favor with a kill, and on the next point, an attack from the Eagles sailed out, giving La Verne a berth in the NCAA Championship match.

Statistically, Juniata hit .184 for the evening with the Leopards hitting .181.  Though the Eagles recorded 11 blocks compared to 7 for La Verne, the Leos held a 84-74 edge in digs while collecting 61 assists to 53 for the Eagles.

Juniata was poised to take the contest in four sets as a 6-2 run gave the Eagles a 17-13 advantage.  But La Verne battled its way to a decisive fifth set with a 6-1 run to grab a 19-18 lead.  Tied at 19-19, the Leos scored three straight points to seize control at 22-19, eventually claiming the set at 25-22 to earn a 2-2 set deadlock.

Jones finished with a team-high 18 kills while Gonzales totaled 16 kills in the win.  Jones hit .302 for the match with Gonzales also registering 22 digs to tie for match-high honors to also record a double-double.  Rebecca Villanueva recorded 10 kills while Ashley Morgado collected 8 kills.  Setter Yesenia Lopez directed the Leopard offense to the tune of 51 assists, also a match-high.

Juniata took a 1-0 lead with a 25-20 set win in the opening stanza.  The Eagles raced out to a 5-0 but the Leopards clawed back to draw even at 8-8.  The teams were knotted at 13-13 before the Eagles began their surge, going on a decisive 6-0 to grab a 22-16 they would not relinquish.  Though the Leopards hit .317 in the first set, they were hampered by four service errors along with a pair of blocking errors. 

The Leopards countered with a 25-18 triumph in the second frame, hitting .484 while limiting the Eagles to a .139 percentage.  Leading 11-10, La Verne used a 9-2 spurt to take a 20-12 lead as they cruised to victory.  Gonzales and Villanueva combined for 8 of the Leopards’ 15 kills in the set.

It was a different story in the third set as the Eagles dominated action, earning an emphatic 25-13 win to take a 2-1 set advantage.  Juniata led 10-5 early and held a 14-9 cushion before winning seven of the next nine points to hold an insurmontable 21-11 lead.  La Verne struggled offensively hitting -.079 in the fourth set as the Eagles recorded 6 blocks against the Leos.

Thomas, a two-time National Player of the Year and a four-time All-American, finished with a match-high 19 kills.  Erin Albert collected 13 kills while Megan Sollenberger totaled 22 digs to equal Gonzales for match-high honors.

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