By Chris Schmidbauer, Sports Information Director
Rochester, MN -- It took all five sets, but for the first time in program history, the Owens Express Volleyball program is a National Champion,
Things got off to a tremendous start. Owens, who had been dominant through the first two matches of the national tournament, picked up right where they left off. Owens would jump out to an early lead at 7-4, and they would maintain that cushion throughout much of the first half of the set. Owens would push their lead to five in the first set, after an attack error by Eastfield's Keishla Reyes. The Express would maintain that lead to 20-15 on a kill by Michaela Eisenhauer. The lead would be trimmed to 22-20, before the Express would finish off the set with three straight points. Kara Schafer's ace clinched the opening frame in favor of Owens at 25-20.
In the second set, Owens, again, would get off to a fast start. The Express would lead 10-5 after another attack error by Eastfield. The Express would stretch that lead to 12-6. Eastfield would rally and cut the lead to 12-10, forcing the Express to take a timeout. The score would remain aa three to four point lead as the two teams traded points. Owens would get a kill from Kara Evers to push the lead back to six points at 22-16. The Harvesters, Alex McPherson, would make the score 22-17 on a kill, but Owens would close the set with three straight points. An attack error by Kalli Caddell, off of Kara Schafer's serve, would give Owens a 2-0 lead with a 25-17 win.
With everything going their way, the Express seemed poised to sweep the national title match, but Eastfield did not go quietly. Owens would take a 4-1 lead out of the gate, but the Harvesters would rally back. They would score seven of the next nine points, to take an 8-6 lead after a kill by Keishla Reyes. The two teams would trade points until 15-14 with Eastfield still leading. The Harvesters would get three straight points. capped off by a Cara Munoz ace, forcing Owens to call a timeout at 18-14. Owens would trade points with Eastfield, but the damage had been done as Eastfield won the third set 25-20, to cut Owens's lead in half at 2-1.
Looking to rebound in the fourth, Owens still was out of sorts, with Eastfield jumping out to a 5-2 lead early. The Express would rally back with four straight points to take a 6-5 lead after a kill by Kennedy Ames. Eastfield would not be denied in the fourth set however. The Harvesters would retake the lead at 8-6, and then after an Express point, they would rally, taking five of the next six points. Owens would eventually trail by as many as six points in the fourth. The Express would narrow the gap to 16-14, forcing Eastfield to take a time out. They would regroup and would outscore Owens 9-5 over the final stretch and the set at 25-19. Catherine Mudd would score the final point for the Harvesters.
It would bring the entire season down to a fifth set, something Owens had not yet dealt with this year. No match, whether it be a win or loss, had gone more than four sets for the Express. The two teams played a tight affair in the decisive set. The two teams traded points back and forth. Owens trailed early but tied the score at 5-5 after a block by Kara Evers and Carlie Bengela. They took their first lead of the set at 7-6 a few moments later, when Kalli Caddell was called for a ball handling penalty. The score would be retied at seven before the Express would rally for three straight points, taking a 10-7 lead. The Harvesters called a timeout and would fight their way back into the set. They would retie the score at 11-11.
It was now the Express's turn to take their timeout in the fifth set. Owens and Eastfield traded points, and the Express would set up match point after a block by Kara Evers. Head coach Sonny Lewis would sub in Carlie Bengela and Kara Schafer for the match point. Schafer would serve for the Express. Her serve was volleyed back over the net. Bengela was ready on the attack, as she drove off the ball off the fingertips of Kalli Caddell of Eastfield. The ball would fall out of bounds, and the match was over. Owens took the decisive set and the program's first national championship and the school's first national title since the 1992-93 Men's Basketball team won a national championship.
The Express have come close before. The team finished third in the country in 2016-17 and then was the National Runner-Up a year ago, when the team was 40-1, losing just the national title match to Coffeyville. Both of those accolades came at the Division II level.
This year was different for the Express though. Owens Athletics would move all of its programs from Division II to Division III starting with 2018-19 season. The Express would lose all but three players from that second place finisher a year ago. The program would bring in 10 freshman to compete for the team this season, and the team was a bit of an unknown as the year began. Owens lost their first match of the season, before finding their stride, ripping off a 19 win streak. They would ascend to as high at No. 2 in the country in the Division III National Poll.
Owens would hit a midseason snag, losing for of their next eleven matches. The losses would drop them one spot to No. 3 in the National Poll. The team would rebound though winning their next eight matches in a row, which would jump them to the No. 1 ranking in the country.
Owens would win Region XII, beating Lorain County 3-0, and they would win the District I/J Tournament last weekend, beating Lorain again 3-0 to advance to the NJCAA Division III National Championship tournament.
Owens opened the tournament on Thursday, sweeping Queensborough College 3-0. On Friday, Owens would again sweep their opponent, Rochester, 3-0 to advance to Saturday's title match against Eastfield.
For their efforts in the tournament, Michaela Eisenhauer won the tournament's Most Valuable Player Award. The sophomore had 19 kills in the national title match to go along with her other 22 kills from the previous two matches.
Summer Sweeting and Kennedy Ames were also both named to the All-Tournament Team. Sweeting had 29 assists and two aces in the match. She finished with 70 total assists and eight aced for the tournament. Ames would finish with 26 kills total for the tournament as well.
Coach Sonny Lewis was named Coach of the Year for Division III as well. Lewis, who is in his 18th year at Owens as head coach, has a 665-196 overall record with the Express. The Express have won the last four OCCAC championships under his tutelage, and now they have the program's first national championship.
The Express finish the season at 40-6 overall. That ties last year's team for 5th most wins in a season at 40. Owens closed the year out on a 15 game winning streak. They had an undefeated season at home for the second straight year as well.