LOS ANGELES, Calif. – It's not easy to beat the defending champions twice in one season and it's even harder when the second match is in their place with a packed house of people that want you to lose.
But that's exactly what the Occidental College women's volleyball team did on Saturday night, beating No. 15 Cal Lutheran University 25-21, 25-22, 23-25, 16-25, 15-8 in the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference tournament championship at Gilbert Arena. With the win, the Tigers (21-8) earn the SCIAC's automatic bid to the NCAA Division III postseason tournament. Seeding will be decided Monday.
"I'm just really proud of the girls," said Occidental coach Heather Collins, who admitted it was a little "unnerving" having the play SCIAC regular season champions on their home court. "They've just done a tremendous job this year."
Oxy's Kasey Rose (Los Olivos, CA) led the way for the third-straight match, hitting .327 with a match-high 19 kills and 29 digs. She put away five points in the fifth set to stop Cal Lu's two-game run and secure one of the program's biggest wins in recent memory, against a team that has become a bitter rival.
"When we came into the fifth game, the first two games before that we were kind of down and we weren't able to get ourselves pumped up. But we came together and were playing for each other," Rose said. "We were like, 'we don't want to lose to Cal Lu.' They've kind of become one of our main rivals now."
Rose's hot streak started in the regular season finale against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps when she led the Tigers with 11 kills in a four-set win, then continued in the semi finals on Thursday with a team-high 15 to get Oxy into their first championship in the match's fourth year.
"She's just aggressive all of the time and that's what I love about her," Collins said. "I'm just really happy for her that she came on tonight and was so strong for us."
Rose wasn't alone.
Rose, Wiese and Boyer-Hayse having great days can be attributed to setter Jessie Altman returning form, after minor injuries hampered her for the last handful of games.
That wasn't the case on Saturday though. The sophomore piled up 50 assists and was even able to keep the Cal Lu (26-6) blockers thinking with four dump shots that went down for points.
"The chemistry on the court was insane," Altman said. "There was just no way to think about anything else on the court besides each point."
The SCIAC championship was a goal the Tigers had set since their season came to an abrupt end last year with a loss in the conference semi finals to the University of La Verne.
"I really can't describe it. It's amazing. We got so close last year and the feeling we that had when we lost to La Verne in the semi finals was heartbreaking," said Boyer-Hayse, who is a frontrunner for SCIAC Player of the Year honors after leading Oxy in kills this season. "And so this year we really came out and said, 'we don't want to go through that again.' We set our expectations really high and knew we had to go all-out."
Oxy continued its recent hot play, winning the first two sets to extend their week-long streak to eight in-a-row. The tables turned quickly though when Oxy perhaps a little anxious with so much at stake.
Collins said aggressive serving in the first two sets, versus a little bit of tentativeness in the second two allowed the Regals middles and star outside hitter Kylie McLogan to have their way at the net in Games 3 and 4.
"The girls just came out on fire. When the other team battled back, we let down a little bit and got a little nervous," said Collins. "Then in the fifth game we just started serving bullets and the girls came back and did an awesome job."
Oxy becomes the first SCIAC school to beat Cal Lutheran twice in one season since the University of La Verne did it in 2007, hands the Regals their first home loss since Sept 21 and winning the rubber-match between two schools that split their two meetings in the regular season – Cal Lu beat Oxy on Sept. 20 and the Tigers won the most recent matchup on Oct. 21.
Now they'll exhale, wait for their playoff draw and see if they can make a run at the NCAA tournament.
"It's been a tough week so they'll take tomorrow for some good, needed rest," Collins said. "And then we'll come back and work on the things we need to work on, figure out who were playing, do what we need to with the scouting report and just play our game. That's what matters. That we go into playing our game, being confident, knowing that we can win."