By Megan Dierberger
Over 400 fans filled up Schoenecker Arena in St. Paul as the St. Ben’s and St. Thomas volleyball teams went head-to-head for the MIAC title last Saturday.
St. Ben’s upset their long-time rivals on their home court with a 3-2 win to clinch its first MIAC championship since 2009.
This marks CSB’s eighth conference title in school history. They advance to the NCAA Tournament for the 19th time in CSB history, last appearing in 2015.
St. Ben’s finished the regular season in the No. 2 seed with an overall record of 19-8 and 9-2 conference. They finished behind St. Thomas, who was 25-6 overall and 10-1 conference, while ranked No. 17 nationally.
CSB began the match with a slow start as they fell to St. Thomas 25-18. The teams switched off scoring points for most of the set before the Tommies scored six straight points to win.
But St. Ben’s knows how to pace themselves.
Senior captain and outside hitter Briana Schmiesing led her team with 11 kills.
“We had the jitters in the first set, since we have a young team,” Schmiesing said. “But as seen in most of our regular season games, we start off slow in the beginning, and we figure things out as we go. It fell into place after that.”
The Bennies fought back in the second set to win 28-26. It wasn’t easy. St. Thomas held a 21-15 lead, but one by one, the Bennies chipped away with kills by Lauren Mathews and Schmiesing, with sets from Megan Pekarek.
Pekarek performed one of her best games with 53 assists, just two shy of reaching her career high of 55. Pekarek, named the CSB Athlete of the Week, ranks 26th in Division III with 10.09 assists per set.
“If we lost the second set, we knew it would be tough to try and come back to win. We all had the same mindset that we needed to take that set if we wanted a chance to win that game,” Pekarek said.
St. Ben’s fell 25-23, with a controversial call to end the set. Similar to the first set, it was back and forth. CSB took the lead 21-20 with a kill by Madison Weiss from Pekarek. UST soon held a 24-23 advantage, and for a moment, it looked like CSB had tied it. St. Thomas spiked the ball out of bounds, but the ref called that St. Ben’s tipped it. Set over.
Nicole Hess, the head volleyball coach for eight years, said they did not let the bad call affect the team’s performance.
“That was the call that was made and we had to move on from it and focus on the next set. I am a big believer that you worry about the things you can control, and officiating is not one of those things,” Hess said via email.
CSB clinched the win from St. Thomas, 27-25. St. Ben’s took a big lead at 22-17 until UST surged and was one point away from clinching the MIAC title at 24-23. CSB took the opportunity to be aggressive and finished on a 4-1 run to send the match to a fifth set.
“After every point we came together in the huddle and look at each other and said ‘next ball.’ Whether we won or lost that point, we knew we could do anything if we stuck together,” Schmiesing said.
To seal the victory and the MIAC Championship title, St. Ben’s defeated St. Thomas by the biggest lead in the match, 15-10. When the score was 13-10, the Bennies confidence grew and scored two more points to claim the MIAC title.
“Getting the game point was huge,” Pekarek said. “We knew we had it and we just needed to work really hard to finish it.”
“It was a ‘pinch-me’ moment,” Hess said. “The team’s work ethic and commitment have been big reasons why we continued to get better as the season went along.”
CSB has yet to lose a fifth set this year. It was St. Ben’s first win over UST since September of 2015.
The NCAA tournament will begin for the Bennies as they face UW-LaCrosse (21-6 overall, 7-0 conference) on Thursday, Nov. 6 in St. Paul. at 6:30 p.m. The score was not available in time for publication.
CSB and their opponent both upset nationally ranked teams and are both on a seven-game winning streak, so the match will be tight.
If St. Ben’s wins, they will then have to defeat two more teams to qualify for the quarterfinals on Thursday, Nov. 16. Semifinals and the NCAA Championship will follow on Nov. 17-18.
FEATURE PHOTO COURTESY OF LEAH RADO • The CSB volleyball team poses with the MIAC trophy after defeating the Tommies on Nov. 4 in St. Paul.