Provided by: Wayland Baptist University
SIOUX CITY, Iowa -- Cinderella finally got caught, but it took a giant to stop her as top-ranked, unbeaten University of Texas-Brownsville ended Wayland Baptist's incredible run at the NAIA Volleyball National Championships here Saturday afternoon.
Although the 19th-ranked Pioneers didn't go down easily in the "Texas state championship," the Ocelets were able to pull out a 25-11, 23-25, 25-16, 25-15 victory over Wayland in the national semifinals.
"We had to be pretty close to flawless to have a chance against their athleticism," Wayland coach Jim Giacomazzi said.
Unfortunately, the Pioneers (36-7) weren't flawless as they had appeared to be at times in winning their first six national tournament matches in the program's first-ever national tournament appearance.
"They're just a solid team," Giacomazzi said of UT-Brownsville, which will play for its second national title in three years on Saturday night against No. 3 Biola (Calif.), which eliminated defending champion and second-ranked Concordia (Calif.) in the other semifinal, the "California state championship," 25-17, 25-21, 25-23.
The Pioneers stayed right with he Ocelots, trailing just 12-10, in the first set before a rash of hitting errors plagued the Pioneers, who were outscored 13-1 the rest of the way as UT-Brownsville ran away with the first set, 25-11. Wayland committed 11 hitting errors with only seven kills for a -.121 hitting percentage in what was the Pioneers' most-lopsided lost set of the season.
But the Pioneers turned things around in the second set, sprinting to a 6-2 lead after back-to-back kills by Grecia Rivera.
"We realized at the end of the first set that short serves might be a big Achille's heel" for the Ocelots, Giacomazzi said.
Wayland went up by as many as six points, but UT-Brownsville closed to within 24-23. After a Wayland timeout, the Pioneers came out and on a tip by Claire Jacobsma finished off the set, 25-23.
It was only the seventh set taken off UT-Brownsville all season, and it assured Wayland would end its season without being swept.
The Pioneers had a promising start to set No. 3, with a kill by Rivera and a block assist by Rivera and Shahala Hawkins helping WBU take a 4-1 lead.
But just as the Pioneers adjusted their serve strategy in the second set, the Ocelots tweaked their own game plan in the third set.
"They made a lot of great adjustments," Giacomazzi said.
UT-Brownsville scored five straight points and went from a three-point deficit to a three-point lead at 11-8. Wayland was within reach, behind 15-12, but the Ocelots again finished with a flourish, using a 10-4 run to end the set, 25-16.
"They made adjustment on the short serve, and I was a little slow to make adjustments to serve deeper," Giacomazzi said.
The final set followed about the same script as the third, with Wayland taking an early lead only to see UT-Brownsville charge back. The Ocelots started their charge even earlier this time, scoring five straight to go from trailing 4-3 to leading 8-4.
After that, the Pioneers didn't have any more answers, and UT-Brownsville methodically finished out the match, 25-15.
Wayland had 44 kills and hit .146 for the match, its third-lowest percentage of the season, while the Ocelots hit .368 with 66 kills. Rivera led the Pioneers with 15 kills and a .237 percentage while Hawkins added 14 and hit .229. Rivera also led in digs with 18, followed by Mercades Torres with 10. Ashlyn Westerman churned out 41 assists.
Wayland was out-blocked, 9-5, with Hawkins getting 1 solo and three block assists. The Pioneers had no aces compared to one for UT-Brownsville.
Giacomazzi couldn't say enough about his team's performance, not only during the national championships but all season as the Pioneers set a new pinnacle for Wayland volleyball. He reached back to 2007, his first season as Wayland's coach, and thanked all of the players he's coached in his seven years.
"You established a work ethic, a passion, a name for volleyball," he told them. "You guys set the foundation for the success we've had this year and the success that will continue."
As for this year's team -- which includes seniors Rivera, Jacobsma and Natasha Giacomazzi -- the coach got a bit choked up as he spoke.
"They got so much respect (in Sioux City)," he said, adding that as he walked to conduct his radio interview after the match he was continually congratulated by UT-Brownsville fans.
"I couldn't get two steps without someone recognizing their determination and skill."
Giacomazzi called Rivera and Jacobsma "quality individuals. They've been so much fun, such a joy." He said Jacobsma really stepped it up during the national championship, "playing at an all-American level. Same thing for Grecia. She was the talk of all the coaches."
And of his daughter, who didn't figure to play her senior season due to an injury but fought through it and surprising came back midway through, Giacomazzi was especially reflective.
"Every one of them have their own personalities," he said. "They're all so giving. They're going to be missed."
That said, he coach already was looking forward to next season.
"We're going to celebrate all the way home. They need to enjoy what they've done," he said. "And then we'll reload and start over again."