Storied run in 1st-ever appearance at NCVF National Championships earns Lopes championship trophy
By: Jim Howell/GCU Club Sports Information Director
No one in Colorado knew what to expect from the Grand Canyon University Women’s Club Volleyball team in their first appearance on a national stage.
They do now.
Facing a ‘who’s who’ of universities from around the country, the Lopes powered through the field at the National Collegiate Volleyball Federation (NCVF) National Championships en route to a straight-set victory over Auburn University, 25-19, 25-17, in the title match to win their first-ever national championship Saturday evening at the Colorado Convention Center Arena in downtown Denver, Colorado. The win over the Tigers was the Lopes’ seventh victory in nine matches during the tournament, and capped an incredible Cinderella run by a team that had never been to a national tournament before.
“Going into it, we thought about what a great experience this would be, and that we’d never been there before,” said Lopes’ Head Coach Kristine Naber. “We’d had some success throughout the season (including winning their 3rd straight Mountain West Volleyball Conference title in early March), but we had absolutely no idea what to expect.”
Whatever first-match jitters the Lopes may have had were quickly dispelled Thursday morning as they breezed through their first two matches of pool play over Bowling Green State University and Creighton University without dropping a set. A sweep of pool play looked imminent, since their last matchup was against Duke University, who hadn’t even won a set in losing their first two matches.
So much for the odds.
“Duke just outworked us,” said Naber about the 22-25, 25-19, 5-15 loss to the Blue Devils. “Momentum is everything in volleyball, but we got caught on our heels in the third set, and we could never catch up.”
Fortunately, the Lopes’ loss was in three sets instead of a two-set sweep, which still put them as the top seed coming out of their pool. That set up a championship-flight showdown with undefeated Miami University (Ohio) Friday morning, which saw the Lopes return to their previous form and top the Redhawks in straight sets. That sent them to a matchup against the only familiar team in the field for GCU: Arizona State University, who the Lopes had beaten in a ‘friendly’ match back in November at the Lopes’ Performance Center on campus. This time around, the Lopes and Sun Devils went toe-to-toe for three sets, with ASU tagging GCU with what would be their final loss of the weekend, 22-25, 25-10, 13-15. Despite the loss, the Lopes qualified for the Sweet 16 and the final day of action – which gave the players reason to believe in the end result.
“When we lost to Duke, but still finished first in our pool; then lost to ASU, but still came through in the gold bracket, I thought, ‘We’ve made it here for a reason,’” said Lopes’ junior setter Olivia Brunt. “We have to try our hardest to see where it can take us. These teams shouldn’t have beaten us, so we needed to find that heart.”
First up on the final day? None other than the defending NCVF National Champions from the University of Virginia.
“We didn’t even know that fact going in,” said Brunt. “We lost the first set badly, and I thought we might be done after that. To come back and win that match really showed me we could pull through.”
Coming from behind to eliminate the Cavaliers in three sets (19-25, 25-19, 15-11) gave the Lopes momentum to sweep Indiana University in the Elite 8, but after splitting the first two sets of their Final Four match against the University of South Florida, the momentum died, and suddenly, the Lopes were staring at an 11-3 deficit in the 3rd and final set. Timeout, GCU. Time for the coach with nearly a quarter-century of college coaching experience to subtly bring out the best in her group.
“What (Naber) said in the huddle pulled us through,” Brunt said about the furious Lopes’ rally that pulled out the 3rd set, 17-15. “She said, ‘They still need four points to win. That’s a lot of points. We’re not going to stop fighting.’”
“Once she called that timeout, everyone got it together, and started doing their jobs,” said Lopes’ sophomore libero Angie Castaneda. “We started racking up points, and once I saw us get to 7 points, I knew we had this.”
The improbable USF comeback sent the exhausted Lopes to the title match against Auburn, who dispatched ASU in surprisingly easy fashion in the semis, and had nearly a full hour more rest in preparation for the championship match than GCU. When the first serve of the title match happened, though, it was clear who had the fresher legs.
“Coming back from a 3-11 (score against USF) made us realize that if we didn’t beat Auburn after that, it would all be pointless,” laughed Castaneda. “We saw the Auburn players during warmups, and saw that they didn’t have anything left. We just went after them – point by point.”
Once the deciding point hit the back corner of the Tigers’ side of the court to give the Lopes their first-ever crown, the celebration ensued… quickly. Then the Lopes had to rush to get to the Denver Airport to barely catch their scheduled flights, and once back in Phoenix, concentrate on Finals Week.
For Castaneda, who was one of four Lopes named to the NCVF All-Tournament Team (she and Lauren Damour were 2nd Team, while Amanda Cassidy was a 1st Team selection), she will return in August to try to defend a title with a somewhat new roster. For Brunt, who organized and began the program with a few of her friends three years ago, and ended her career Saturday by being named the NCVF Tournament’s Most Valuable Player, she’ll earn her diploma this week, and leave knowing what it took to bring an entire volleyball program to the pinnacle in a short amount of time.
“I’m very humbled, because we’ve always had a really good program, but I don’t think we would’ve won a title without this set of girls this year,” said Brunt. “I’m just really proud to know every one of them. I didn’t want it to be over! I love volleyball, I love this team, and I love this school a lot. It’s all really awesome.”
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