When the 17 women of Calvin volleyball filed into the locker room for the ten-minute break between the second and third game of the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball National Championship, they were down two games to none versus Cal Lutheran. CLU had just closed out the second set 25-12 with a service ace and had held Calvin to a dismal .105 hitting percentage.
Calvin head coach Amber Warners turned to her assistants as they marched out of the gym and said, “If we try to push more volleyball stuff at them for the next ten minutes, it’s going to be really detrimental.”
Instead, they instructed the team not to say a word about the match. Not to discuss what they needed to do better or how they could slow down CLU’s Kylie McLogan who had just notched seven kills in the second game. The players were to do whatever they normally do when they have a few moments of down time.
So they played a game. They huddled up close and counted, “One, two, three.” Then they all looked at someone in the huddle. If two players ended up looking at each other, both of them were out.
After that, one player broke out into song, and soon they were singing “Lean on Me” at the top of their lungs.
The players, frazzled only moments before because the most important game of their volleyball careers that they were playing in front of 3,300 people was not going well, were laughing and enjoying just being together with the teammates they loved.
Meanwhile, Warners remembered the previous year’s national championship match. Her Knights took two games off the University of St. Thomas before dropping the next three and losing it all, ending the season stuck in second place. She remembered what it was like in this ten minute break for that team only one game away from the championship. Mostly, she remembered that there was some doubt there, doubt that ultimately caused her team to panic and lose the match.
When the song ended, Warners brought her team back in and they returned to the task at hand. They discussed what needed to improve in game three, and then she shooed them back onto the court.
The Knights proceeded to make a miraculous comeback, channeling the energy from the many Calvin fans gathered in Hope College’s gym. The Knights took the third game 25-22 and then the fourth 25-17, forcing the tie-breaking fifth set.
But in that fifth set, it seemed Cal Lutheran had gotten its game back. Outside hitter McLogan fired off five kills and an ace, and middle Hayley Tamagni and outside Allie Eason added another four kills to put the Regals up 10-6. Warners took a timeout, her second and last.
Her team had fought past a really good Mount Union team led by senior All-American outside Taylor Webb in the second round. They had managed to hold off Wittenberg in the regional final for the fourth straight year. And they had forced this fifth game after being down 0-2. Now was not the time to let a four-point deficit end their dreams.
“Our motto this year was: Embrace the hard. Love the climb,” said Warners in an interview a few weeks later. “Because it will not be easy. You have to really love walking on that cliff because if you don’t, we’re going to fall off.
“As a coach, I have really tried to instill in our program that there’s only one team that’s going to be happy at the end of the season, and we can’t base our entire feelings and success of our season on that end result. But as the season went on and we kept winning, we started to realize that placing second again wasn’t going to be good enough.”
Three points later, down 11-8 in that deciding final game, Calvin executed a 5-1 run, highlighted by sophomore outside hitter Maggie Kamp’s two thunderous kills, to take the lead 13-12.
A couple of attack errors by CLU’s Eason, and Calvin found themselves looking at game point. But they served the ball into the net.
The teams proceeded to rally back and forth, pushing the game well past 15 points, until finally Calvin’s setter Megan Rietema made a decisive move. The AVCA DIII National Player of the Year threw a dump over her shoulder on two to take that elusive two-point advantage and the game, 20-18.
“It was a thrill,” said Warners of the final points in the fifth set. “It was like going to a horror movie and getting that adrenaline rush. Half the people in the stands couldn’t look. When you watch the video, it doesn’t even capture a twentieth of the tense atmosphere.”
Kamp, the third of five volleyball-playing Kamp sisters from Chicago (four of whom are or were Calvin Knights, including Stacey, a junior who played right side for this year’s team), put down 27 kills in the championship match and earned the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.
“Not very many people ever get to [a national championship],” said Warners, “but to win it the way we did and in that environment, in front of 3,500 people that were mostly cheering for us. I don’t think that will ever be topped.”
Originally published in February 2014