John Gilbert Sports

Concordia Trips UMD in Stirring Region Final

John Gilbert

There might be better rivalries in collegiate sports than the one between UMD and Concordia of St. Paul in women’s volleyball. The Concordia Golden Bears will be making their bid for a seventh consecutive NCAA Division II championship this weekend, an honor they gained by wresting the Central Regional championship match from the Bulldogs in a four-game battle.
Expectations were high for UMD’s volleyball team, which earned the right to play host to the NCAA Division II Central Regional tournament. The Bulldogs had capped a fantastic season by beating six-time defending champion Concordia of St. Paul in a five-game match to end the regular Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference season.
The road got tougher when the Bulldogs had to win an NSIC playoff opener at home to reach the league playoff semifinals and final at Concordia, where the Golden Bears are virtually unbeatable. But the Bulldogs pulled it off, winning in the semifinals and then stunning Concordia in three straight for the league playoff title.
Riding that hot streak that counted 10 consecutive games from the final regular season game through the three sweeps of the league playoffs, and that gave UMD the home court advantage as host to the Central Regional. Once there, UMD proved it belonged by sweeping past Arkansas Tech, then Southwest Minnesota State, while Concordia got back in the groove by beating Northern State and Central Missouri.
That put the Golden Bears into the Central Region final against UMD. At stake was a slot in the eight-team NCAA D-II tournament. UMD came in 33-2, having lost only an early match to Concordia at Concordia, and a late-season match against Northern State, while Concordia’s six-straight national championship streak was under siege, but the Golden Bears brought a 31-3 record into the match, with two of the three victories inflicted by the Bulldogs.
It figured to be a match of two of the nation’s best teams, because after No. 1 ranked Tampa, UMD was No. 2 and Concordia No. 3 -- in the country, let alone the league or the region.
While UMD was loaded with power-hitting Kate Lange and a very strong supporting cast, Concordia has an incredibly balanced team, with every player seeming capable of every act required of volleyball specialists. Without question, the Golden Bears would be the constant, and it was up to the Bulldogs to return to the amazing peak they had attained in their two most recent battles with Concordia.
It was clear that Concordia was at its best, trading attacks with the Bulldogs from the start, and escaping with a 25-17 first game victory. It was 16-14 late in the game when the Golden Bears came up with a series of blocks that derailed the Bulldogs, running off five straight points to go from 16-14 to 21-14, and Concordia won a vital first game.
UMD stormed back in Game 2, with Lange at her best and her teammates rallying with her for a 25-20 victory. It was a tough game, standing 13-13 until Lange led a charge for four straight points, and a commanding lead. When it was 16-13, Lange, as powerful and explosive a hitter as there is in Division II volleyball, blasted one cannon shot that struck a Concordia player crouching down in the back row trying to block, and the ricochet shot off to the right and landed in Row 4.
It appeared that if the teams played evenly, the match would come down to how well Concordia could cope with Lange’s power. In Game 3, Concordia got the early lead but Lange got free to gain ties at 13-13 and 14-14. But then Concordia’s flawless hitting balance and skill gained four straight points, and the Golden Bears held firmly for a 25-21 triumph.
That put Concordia up 2-1, and UMD would have to win Game 4 in order to avoid the end of its season  and force the final to a deciding fifth game.
Concordia ruined those plans by jumping ahead 5-1. From there, the game evolved into a mighty struggle for the Bulldogs to catch up, then fall behind, then catch up again. Trailing 10-5, UMD put on a stirring rally by winning six of the next seven points, with another Lange blast gaining an 11-11 deadlock. While it was far from a one-hitter charge, Lange rose above all for kills that also provided 12-1`2, 13-13, and 14-14 ties, and the Bulldogs also evened the game at 15-all. But then it was Concordia’s turn to score six of the next seven points, with a block point making it 21-16.
Game 4 wound up 25-20 for Concordia, making it the end of a splendid 33-3 UMD season, and the end of Lange’s record-shattering career -- but not before she registered 24 kills in the title match -- and sending the Golden Bears to their chance at a seventh consecutive national championship with a 32-3 record.