In its first playoff match since 2012, fourth seeded St. Olaf volleyball was locked in an intense struggle against the visiting fifth seed, Bethel University, following the second set of play. Although beginning with an inspiring and enthusiastic 25-19 first set victory in which they never surrendered the point lead after an electric 5-1 start, the Oles found themselves losing momentum quickly, dropping set two 20-25 while committing six errors in the process.
St. Olaf head coach Emily Foster needed to steer the Oles back to their winning trajectory. Together, during the tense intermission before a decisive third set, Foster and her players exited to the locker room to regroup and come back strong, determined to keep their Cinderella season alive.
“We just had to refocus,” Foster said. “We were one set apiece at that point, and it was basically just that we had to fight back. This is the playoffs, [Bethel] is a team that’s gonna fight us. Are we gonna push back? Are we gonna prove that we belong in the playoffs? Or are we gonna let them take control? That was part of it. Our ball control also fell apart a little bit in the second set, so we just needed to refocus on our passing and our serve receives so we could get back in system.”
Evidently, Foster’s strategic team meeting worked wonders – St. Olaf absolutely dominated during the proceeding stretch of play, bullying the Royals for a 25-15 set victory, the largest margin of the contest that permanently skewed the match in the Oles’ favor. Consistently demonstrating a strong sense for correcting the team during moments of lapse, Foster called another timeout in the same vein as the locker room meeting after Bethel took a 12-7 advantage in the fourth. Once play resumed, led by veteran star Megan Grimes ’19 and breakout sensation Lauren Rewers ’20, who had 17 and 14 kills in the match, respectively. St. Olaf snatched six of the next seven points to tie the score and permanently reclaim the momentum en route to a triumphant 25-23 fourth set victory. It’s the Oles’ first playoff win in seven years.
“It [the timeout in the fourth] was mostly about ball control and serve receive,” Foster said. “If we can serve receive and run a quality offense, it’s a whole different game.”
Having finished 10th or worse in the MIAC for the past four seasons and entering the season ranked dead last in preseason polls, St. Olaf volleyball has consistently proven to be the most surprising athletic team on campus this fall, a wild underdog story as inspirational as it is exciting. Everyone wrote them off in August. Now, they’ll be the only St. Olaf fall team still playing in November.
“Belief is the biggest difference from last year to this year,” Foster said. “The takeaway from this match is our serve receive. When we can serve receive we can play with anyone.”
The Oles face a daunting task in their approaching semifinal match against Foster’s alma mater, St. Thomas, a nationally ranked powerhouse that swept St. Olaf 3-0 in the regular season. However, for this team that revels in the underdog role and wears its heart on its sleeve, the obvious question when faced with such odds is “why not us?” Ole volleyball has been consistently surprising fans and opponents alike all season long, and for a squad containing the MIAC leaders in kills (Rewers), assists (Lexi Wall ’21), service aces (Rewers) and points (Rewers), not to mention finishing second in conference in total team kills and assists, a momentous upset could absolutely be in the cards.
The moment the final ball was struck, Foster began prepping for the Oles’ semifinal match in St. Paul on Thursday.
“We gotta get them out of system, and we have to do a good job against their middles,” Foster said. “Their middles are very, very talented. Those would be the two biggest keys to that match.”