ULV caps season
with 3rd straight Final Four
Posted December 2, 2005
Kelly Rivas
(Above): After slapping hands with the Bears for the good game, Tiona Hobson and Kimberly Fitzsimmons scream with joy for their win. (Below): The Leopards line up to be introduced before their second game against Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Steven Falls
Sports Editor

A season filled with rollercoaster like results came to a crashing end when the sixth-ranked La Verne women’s volleyball team was easily dismantled by No. 7 Wisconsin- Whitewater, 3-0 (30-27, 30-18, 30-24), Nov. 18 at the Salem Civic Center in Salem, Va.

The loss capped a season in which the Leopards saw themselves set a Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference record with a 56-match conference win streak, only to lose four of their last five matches.

La Verne battled for most of game one and actually tied the score at 27 before a Wisconsin timeout.
Out of the timeout, the Warhawks used a Leopard service error, a backcourt miscommunication that resulted in an ace and a free-ball kill to take the match, 30-27.

Unfortunately for the Leopards, games two and three produced much of the same results as slow starts proved disastrous.

“They just got off to a better start,” head coach Don Flora said. “We definitely made some errors.”

Led by senior outside hitter Cassie Uttech and senior setter Abbie Mueller, the Warhawks used surprising offensive schemes and an excellent serve to disrupt ULV’s rhythm. The serve was something La Verne had trouble adjusting to throughout the entire match, however, most of the team felt it was something they should have been able to deal with.

“I don’t think it was anything that we couldn’t handle,” senior middle blocker Mandy Sedia said. “We just couldn’t execute.”

There was a point in game three, which the Leopards failed to capitalize on seven straight serves from the Warhawks. Excellent serves caused passes to be mishandled, which led to bad sets and free balls for Wisconsin. Senior opposite Courtney Rollins had a particularly tough time during this stretch.

Kelly Rivas
(Above): With only one point to go in the final match against the Washington Bears, Whitney Kranz, Allison Dahlgren, Kimberly Fitzsimmons, Tiona Hobson and Taimane Suddeth cheer their teammates to seal the win. La Verne defeated the Bears, 3-0 (30-18, 31-25, 30-27), on Nov. 17. (Below): Before the first game in Salem, Va., the Leopards were inspired by a quote on the white board in their locker room.

“It was hard for me because I think they served to me all eight times,” Rollins said.

Despite the talk of what La Verne could have done better or what they should have done better, they ran into a Wisconsin team who seemed to have peaked at the right time in the season considering their upset of No. 1 Emory a night earlier.

“We were just playing out of our minds,” Mueller, who finished the match with 45 assists, 16 digs and four kills, said. “I think we really surprised them…people are not expecting us to be here.”

Mueller also noted that they effectively scouted the Leopards the previous evening, finding holes in the defense and other things they could use to their advantage. The Warhawks were able to see most of La Verne’s match against Washington University of St. Louis because they played right before them.

Every player firmly denied the idea that Wisconsin was the best team they have faced all season. Instead, most agreed with Mueller’s assessment that the Warhawk’s scouting and adjustments they made proved to be the difference. Rollins summed it up by saying that Wisconsin was the best team that played to their weaknesses.

The road to Salem was not easy for the Leopards. The team actually trailed Cal Lutheran in SCIAC play late in the season before two straight wins over the Regals in the final week earned them the conference title and catapulted them into the West Region tournament as the No. 1 seed.

The Leopards continued their late season dominance with three-game sweeps over Whitworth, Cal State East Bay and Chapman to earn the West Region title and a berth into the NCAA tournament in Salem. The sweeps extended the Leopards’ winning streak to 12 games, the last 11 in the form of three-game sweeps.
Kelly Rivas
(Above): Receiving the NCAA West Region Championship Trophy for La Verne were the team’s two seniors, Mandy Sedia and Courtney Rollins. This is the third year in a row that La Verne has clinched this title. (Below): Ali White, Leslie Flores, Mandy Sedia, Katherine Randall, Whitney Kranz, Brianna Gonzales and Courtney Rollins received individual awards after their loss to Wisconsin-Whitewater.

“I think right now we are peaking,” Rollins said after regional. “We all thought that regionals were going to be harder.”

The regional title game sweep over Whitworth pitted La Verne against national rival Washington in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tournament.
ULV came into the quarterfinals with a chip on their shoulder. They had sustained three straight losses at the hands of Washington in the last three years. The Bears had eliminated the Leopards in the NCAA semifinals in each of the last two years and defeated them in a come from behind victory earlier this season in St. Louis.

Washington came into the match sporting a 35-1 record with their only blemish coming in a late season loss to Emory.

Much like Wisconsin, ULV seemed unbeatable throughout the match. Many players noted the revenge factor as a reason for such an intense meeting.
After falling behind early, Washington never got back on track and fell to the Leopards in three games.

“We owned the match, all of the momentum was going our way,” sophomore outside hitter Jodi Lindsay said. “We weren’t afraid of losing…we just played more with our hearts.”

“Our passion to play the game was there,” Flora added. “I felt like we were playing fresher than they were.”

Another important aspect was the ineffectiveness of Bears’ senior All-American setter Kara Liefer. ULV successfully slowed Liefer throughout the game, holding her to only 23 assists and 10 digs, an average statistical performance by her standards.

Liefer was a part of the Washington team that eliminated the Leopards in 2003 and went on to win the national championship hosted by La Verne.

Before the match against Washington, junior outside hitter Kimberly Fitzsimmons suffered a severe ankle sprain, which caused her to watch the quarterfinal from the bench.

Fitzsimmons played key roles for the Leopards throughout the season and the injury caused Flora to shuffle his rotation only minutes before the game.
Kelly Rivas
(Above): In the air, doing a back set, Leslie Flores sets it up for a fellow Leopard in the second match against Wisconsin-Whitewater on Nov. 18. Flores was named SCIAC Female Athlete of the week. Wisconsin Whitewater defeated La Verne in the semifinals and went on to be national champions. (Below): Within minutes of the start of the first match, Kimberly Fitzsimmons sprained her left ankle. Trainer Joanna Engel works to evaluate Fitzsimmons’ injury.

Fitzsimmons was also unavailable for the semifinal match against Wisconsin.

“Kimmy is a major component of what we do,” Flora said.

Flora also noted that her loss affected his substitution pattern and rotation depth. The loss caused Flora to dig deeper into his bench and shuffle rotations in order to effectively maintain rest periods for his starters throughout the match.

Fatigue could have been a factor for the Leopards in that they were playing their sixth and seventh games in two weeks spanning across California, Washington and Virginia.

Most of the schools in the quarterfinals hosted their own regional. La Verne, despite being the No. 1 seed in the West Region, was unable to host the tournament because the Sports Science and Athletic Pavilion in La Verne remains under construction.

The host site was awarded to second seeded Whitworth by default. The construction has been ongoing since July and caused the team to practice and play all games on the road this season.

“Our first game knocked the wind out of us,” Lindsay said, referring to game one of the match against Washington.

“We’re not letting it be a factor,” Rollins added after arriving in Virginia before the first match. “Our goal is to win a national championship, that is what we are here to do.”

Besides the disappointing loss in the semifinals, La Verne has to be encouraged by the play from their underclassmen. Freshman outside hitter Brianna Gonzales saw significant playing time leading the Leopards in kills in both matches. Gonzales also seemed to come up with key points when the Leopards needed them the most throughout matches.

Lindsay, a starter, is only a sophomore and saw a good portion of court time as well. The left-handed outside hitter was one of the more consistent players throughout tournament play.

With the loss to Wisconsin, the Leopards finished the season with a 24-9 record and as a NCAA semi-finalist for the third consecutive year. ULV won the national championship in 2001.

The 2005 season did not come without its highs and lows.

The Leopards began the year with many doubts from outsiders that they could not live up to the billing of previous ULV squads.

The year began solid but the Leopards lost two of three in the Teri Clemens Invitational tournament in St. Louis against Juniata and Washington, both highly ranked teams.

The matches were losses on paper, but Flora indicated that he was extremely pleased with his team’s effort at the time. La Verne fell to Juniata in four games but jumped out to a two game lead over Washington before the Bears battled back to take the match in five.
Kelly Rivas
(Above): Keeping the rally going in the third match, Brianna Gonzales, outside hitter, spikes the ball to opponents from Washington. Gonzales led the Leopards in attacks with 11 kills.

“If people would have said in the beginning that we would be in the final four, nobody would have bet on that,” Flora said after the loss to Wisconsin.

The Leopards continued throughout the year and eventually jumped into SCIAC play where they hadn’t lost an on-court match since October of 2000.

The Leopards forfeited a match to Cal Lutheran in 2001. The match-winning streak came to a halt at 56 with their first meeting against Cal Lutheran in Thousand Oaks.

It was then that ULV hit a brick wall, losing four of five matches.

Even though players consistently denied there was no pressure in continuing the SCIAC winning streak, it ultimately caught up with them at the end and took pressure off of them to perform.

Players were not used to losing and decided to do something about it.

The Leopards even had to battle back from a two game deficit against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps in the first conference match after the winning streak came to an end, a match that proved to be climactic in their season.

“The will to want to win definitely changed,” Rollins said. “We got sick of losing…it was a definite turnaround for our season.”

The Leopards also had to overcome the loss of six reliable seniors from 2004’s semifinalist squad.

Rollins and Sedia were thrown into the forefront as team captains, a duty they handled exceptionally well considering the pressures involved.

Rollins and Sedia are also the only players that La Verne will lose from this year’s squad, something that brings excitement and expectations for next year’s squad.

Much of the team was distraught after the loss to Wisconsin, especially because it came in such a shocking manner. The players felt it was not their time to go and that they still had more to prove.

“We gave it our all, we did what we could,” junior setter Leslie Flores said.
“We just got beat.”

Although he believes his team could have performed better in the semifinal, Flora was wide-eyed and proud of a club that has come such a long way in his eyes.

“This is the best team I have ever coached as far as coming together as a team,” Flora said. “They really gave their hearts to each other…I love these kids, it’s a tribute to them to be in the final four.”

Steven Falls can be reached at fallss@ulv.edu.

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