The Northwestern (St. Paul) volleyball team has been working toward this for six years.
Going into this season, the Eagles had reached the NCAA Division III playoffs six consecutive times, winning four matches. Last year the Eagles won two matches and advanced to the Round of 16 for the first time.
“Our program has slowly been building to this point since our first NCAA tournament appearance in 2010,” Eagles coach Beth Wilmeth said. “After upsetting the No. 1 seed [Nebraska Wesleyan] in the first-round in 2014 on a neutral court, and then upsetting a No. 1 seed [Wis.-Whitewater] in the first-round on their home court and making it to the Sweet 16 last year — we felt like we were on the verge of being able to compete for and win a regional title.”
Indeed. Last Saturday, the Eagles defeated defending national champion Cal Lutheran in five sets to earn their first trip to the Division III Elite Eight. The Eagles (33-4) will play Eastern (of St. Davids, Pa.) at 3 p.m. Thursday in Oshkosh, Wis.
“We had a lot of confidence going into the season and planned a tough nonconference schedule knowing it would help prepare us for postseason,” Wilmeth said. “Ultimately, though, our expectation has always been more about how we compete than what we actually achieve. When we get the ‘how’ right, the result takes care of itself.”
After the winning the UMAC conference tournament, the Eagles were picked to host a regional — the first time a UMAC team has hosted a regional. The Eagles swept St. Norbert and then swept Wis.-La Crosse, which had defeated the Eagles 3-1, in September, to reach the regional final.
“We kept telling our players that there is no better opportunity than on our home court and that it would require everything of them and more,” Wilmeth said of the regional final victory. “It was a marathon match with a marathon finish.”
Junior outside hitter Lindsey Peterson, the two-time UMAC player of the year, had 24 kills and 33 digs to key the victory over Cal Lutheran. Peterson, from Sheffield, Iowa, led the Eagles, who are just the second UMAC team to reach the NCAA round of 16 in any sport, with 607 kills this season.
Against Eastern (32-5), the Eagles face a team making its third appearance in the Elite Eight in six years.
“We’re expecting that our teams will match up well,” Wilmeth said. “It should be a great match.”
In addition to Peterson, the Eagles feature three other first-team all-UMAC players — Shanay Gonder, Jackie Doering and Leesa Hulstrand.