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With a 3-1 victory over Benedictine University, the Lakeland College women's volleyball team won its first Northern Athletics Conference tournament title on Saturday, Nov. 3, at home.
The No. 1-seeded Muskies (23-14) have now officially returned to their conference tournament-winning ways, as the squad made a habit of winning the former Lake Michigan Conference Tournament from 2001-05 under the guidance of head coach Chad Schreiber.
"Getting that first one can seem like a mountain, so I'm glad we were able to do it our second year in the NAC," Schreiber said. "With each year that passes I know how much tougher it would get because when I first came into the Lake Michigan Conference we seemed so close for three years before we actually won one. Getting over that initial hump is half the battle."
Although the No. 3-seeded Eagles took the first game, 30-23, Schreiber and his team were not too concerned about their ability to make a comeback.
"I have warning signs with each player that tell me we're in trouble, but no one gave me a red flag by responding poorly to losing the first game," Schreiber said. "Serving and serve receive, the basics of the game, helped us make the turnaround. We also blocked when it mattered."
Junior setter Jessica Sparling, who racked up 41 assists for the game, cited defense, communication and hard work as other key elements that led to the Muskies' speedy recovery.
"I don't think we were worried at all," Sparling said. "We've had experiences before where we got killed the first game, then turned around and kicked their butts the other three games. We had all the confidence we needed."
Schreiber and Sparling were right to remain calm, as the Muskies kicked off game two with a 6-0 run and never looked back, taking the final three games of the match 30-18, 30-27, 30-23 to secure the NAC Title.
Outside hitters Brittanie Paulus and Ashley Domask provided major contributions on both offense and defense, as Paulus knocked down a team-high 17 kills to go with 14 digs, and Domask reversed the numbers with a team-high 17 digs and 14 kills.
"I thought Ashley Domask's serve receive was critical because she responded to Benedictine's attacks on her," Schreiber said. "Tonia Strebelinski was a key player as well, and continues to make digs that save the whole team. People sometimes forget how good her digs are because she has been making them all year. Heidi Kramer was also a factor because she made them change the defense they were running."
Strebelinski, a sophomore defensive specialist, tallied 12 digs, while Kramer, a junior right side hitter recorded a solid 10 kills and four block assists.
As the NAC is not eligible for an automatic NCAA Tournament bid until next year, the Muskies' post-season fate rests in the hands of the NCAA selection committee. Lakeland will have to wait until the tournament pairings are announced Sunday evening to see if they have received a Pool B bid, which is reserved for institutions in conferences that do not meet the requirements for an automatic bid.
"I really hope the committee decides in our favor," Sparling said. "We really want it, and we have the energy and the court presence to make something happen."
If Lakeland makes the NCAA Tournament, they will begin regional play on Thursday, Nov. 8.