GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - The Wittenberg Tigers came into the NCAA Division III Tournament championship match riding a 14-match winning streak, including five straight postseason wins that had the Tigers on the brink of their second national title in five seasons. The run ended, however, at the hands of an even hotter Cal Lutheran squad that had beaten four of the top 15 teams in the final national poll in a span of just two weeks.
The Regals claimed their first NCAA Division III Tournament championship with what Wittenberg Head Coach Paco Labrador called the "mix that you need to be a champion," referring to Cal Lutheran's offensive efficiency and defensive excellence. Cal Lutheran pulled off the 3-0 win by set scores of 25-23, 25-18, 25-16 while attacking at a .276 percentage and forcing the Tigers to scramble on almost every point.
"Most Division III teams, you have to kind of pick your poison - are you going to be an offensive team or are you going to be a defensive team," Labrador said. "They have both."
The loss left Wittenberg, ranked sixth nationally, with a final 2015 record of 29-3 and its first-ever NCAA Division III Tournament runner-up finish. Ninth-ranked Cal Lutheran improved to 31-5 after recording its eighth win over a nationally ranked opponent.
The first set was a back-and-forth affair that eventually went Cal Lutheran's way on a contested final point. After Wittenberg led early in the set, Cal Lutheran went on a serving run by eventual Tournament Most Outstanding Player Allie Eason to stake out a 16-12 advantage. The Tigers battled back to tie the set at 22-22, but the Regals took three of the last four points.
Cal Lutheran seized the momentum immediately in the second set, jumping out to an 8-1 lead, again riding Eason's hot serving. The Tigers trailed by as many as eight points midway through the set before making a run back to 21-18 on a block by senior Kara Seidenstricker (London, Ohio/Jonathan Alder). After a timeout, the Regals closed out the set emphatically, winning the next four points, including three straight kills.
The momentum carried over again following a 10-minute intermission, with Cal Lutheran jumping out to a 6-1 lead. Seidenstricker served the Tigers back even at 6-6, but the Regals slowly pulled away, ending the match on a 6-2 run that culminated with a block on the decisive point.
Cal Lutheran's final attack percentage was .276 as the Regals topped .300 in each of the last two sets. Eason led with 13 kills, but the Regals spread the wealth offensively as five different players finished with at least six kills in the match.
The Tigers were led offensively by senior Melissa Emming (West Chester, Ohio/Mount Notre Dame) with eight kills to go along with seven digs and two block assists. Junior Courtney Huck (Decatur, Ill./St. Teresa) led in assists with 16, Seidenstricker contributed five kills, two service aces, three blocks and a team-high 11 digs, and junior Emily Kahlig (Coldwater, Ohio/Coldwater) added four blocks.
"I'm happy for this team for getting this far," Labrador said. "I can't think of a better way to spend two weeks. I'm thinking about how much fun we had."
Seidenstricker and junior Camila Quiñones (Sunbury, Ohio/Worthington Christian) earned spots on the All-Tournament Team.
The NCAA runner-up finish was the second by a Wittenberg team in six months, coming on the heels of the women's golf team's performance at the 2015 NCAA Division III Tournament. Wittenberg has a total of eight runner-up finishes in its rich athletics history - four in men's basketball, two in football and one each in women's golf and women's volleyball. Wittenberg teams have won five NCAA Tournament titles - two in football, two in men's basketball and the 2011 women's volleyball championship.
Written By: Ryan Maurer