By James Gensterblum / Daily News Corespondent
The Hillsdale College Chargers volleyball program has accomplished many things in its history, including a top-5 national ranking, an undefeated regular season, and several GLIAC South division championships.
However, they’d never won a GLIAC conference tournament, falling short even in their most successful seasons.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the Chargers added another accolade to their storied history, defeating Saginaw Valley State in five pressure-packed games to clinch the 2009 GLIAC tournament title in front of their home crowd.
“It’s something we’ve never done before here, win the GLIAC tournament, and we’ve had some very good teams here at Hillsdale,” Hillsdale College coach Chris Gravel said. “This team has surprised me all season and they continue to surprise me with their toughness and resilience. It’s a great win for our program.”
The championship match was a classic showdown between the GLIAC North and South division champions, and the level of play on the court certainly didn’t disappoint.
The two teams split the first four sets, with the Cardinals taking sets one and three and the Chargers taking two and four, to set up a deciding fifth game that went right down to the wire.
Hillsdale and Saginaw Valley traded the lead back and forth throughout the fifth match and in the end both teams got an opportunity to serve for the championship.
Hillsdale’s came when they were up 14-13, and was quickly snuffed out by a kill from SVSU’s Jessica Treiber to even the score at 14-14.
The Cardinals, then, had the opportunity to watch their title hopes go up in smoke. Down 15-14, Hillsdale’s back row, led by Sydney Dow, who made the All-Tournament team for Hillsdale, kept the ball alive until SVSU’s Allison Schlinkert put her kill attempt into the net to even the score again.
Finally, the Chargers got a clutch kill from freshman Lauren K. Grover, and Schlinkert put another kill attempt into the net to clinch the victory for Hillsdale.
“I think what put us over top in the fifth set was our execution,” said Hillsdale outside hitter Ashlee Crowder. “Both teams were making big plays on every point, so it came down to which of us could do something that the other couldn’t respond to, and we just kept finding new ways as a team to execute and put points on the board.”
Crowder was key for the Chargers all match, netting 26 kills to earn the tournament MVP award, but she particularly came up big for Hillsdale in the deciding fifth set.
The sophomore had four kills in set five, and gave her team a major boost by overcoming a mid-set injury to keep playing with the game on the line. With the game tied 7-7, Crowder went up for a kill attempt and came down with her hitting arm hanging limp. Despite the injury, Crowder kept on going and played out the set, helping her team to seal the win.
“I went up for the kill attempt, and I guess I tried to hit it too hard because I felt something pop in my shoulder,” Crowder said. “It was a scary moment, but once I had collected myself a little I realized that I had a responsibility to my team to keep playing, so I sucked it up and played out the rest of the set.”
Dow led Hillsdale with 20 digs and paced a Charger defense that was stingy all match.
“These games are the most fun, the games where you are playing a tough opponent and every point matters,” Dow said. “To pull a game like that out, and to win a title in the process, makes it even better.”
Setter Apryl Schmucker was also named to the all-tournament team along with Dow and Crowder, and had 47 assists for the Chargers, while sophomore Clara Leutheuser had 13 kills and 2.5 blocks.
After taking a conference title, the Chargers now turn their attention to the NCAA tournament. Much like the GLIAC Tournament, Hillsdale’s history in the NCAAs has been one of frustration and early exits.
However, Gravel hopes the Chargers can carry over the experience of winning the GLIAC and turn it into NCAA success
“The fact that we won this title carries a lot of meaning, I think. It’s a sign that we’ve learned to play well and thrive and win under tournament conditions, and in a format very similar to the one that we’ll see in the NCAAs. Obviously, there’s a lot of factors that go into success in the NCAA tournament, but hopefully this experience can give us an edge next week.”