BLOOMINGTON – On day one of practice, Millikin coach Debbie Kiick told her team if they could serve and receive, they had the potential to be a really good volleyball team.
All season long, the Big Blue did just that.
But on Friday, in the second round of the Division III NCAA Tournament, Millikin couldn't find a way to do either effectively in a three set, 25-17, 25-23, 25-17 loss to defending national champions Calvin College.
Millikin had 17 service errors and Calvin connected on seven aces to end the Big Blue's season.
“We feel like we've got a very strong offensive and defensive team, but unfortunately the game got reduced to a serve and pass game today and unfortunately we didn't play favorably in either of those to categories,” Kiick said.
The Knights (28-3) took advantage of eight service errors from Millikin in the first set to comfortably put the Big Blue in an early hole.
“Anything can happen at this point of the game,” Calvin coach Dr. Amber Warners said. “It was actually nice to be on the other end of the missed serve category. Part of our philosophy is we're aggressive in serving.”
But the Big Blue (29-8) have been tested before and weren't going to let Calvin run away with the second set. Calvin led by six, 19-13, when Millikin's Sarah Bingenheimer served the Big Blue to three straight points.
Calvin answered back with a run of its own to reopen a five-point lead, 22-17.
That's when setter Emily Mihalkanin started serving and propelled Millikin to four straight points to tie the match at 22 behind two kills and a block from Alora Goodey.
With the match tied at 23, Calvin closed out the set with straight points.
It stalled, but never completely killed Millikin's momentum.
“We definitely felt a change of momentum throughout the set,” Millikin senior Erin Syversen, who had a team-high 11 kills said. “There were shifts throughout the set where momentum was on their side compared to our side. The last few points where we were really fighting to win.
"I felt like the momentum had switched to our side and I really felt like we were going to come out with the “W” in that set. I thought we would take that momentum to the third set to really get something going and unfortunately, the momentum didn't go as well as we planned.”
Millikin channeled a lot of energy to stay afloat in the second set and energy to weather the mental storm of a back-and-forth error-filled start to the match.
But, Kiick's team is high energy and found a way not not suffer a complete energy letdown.
“We're just a high energy team all around,” Goodey said. “When things aren't going our way, yeah, it's hard to keep that high energy all the time. I know that as a team to be successful, we have to have that energy regardless of how it's going in that moment."
Calvin jumped out to a 9-5 third set lead, but Millikin pulled back to within one, but it was as close as the Big Blue would come in the final set.
Goodey recorded 10 kills in her final Millikin game and Emily Mihalkanin had a game-high 28 assists.
After defeating Greenville in straight sets Thursday, Millikin and Kiick felt like they had a sound plan in place to send the Knights home early.
But sometimes, the best laid plans go to waste.
“Tonight we had a really good, solid game plan and the girls came in feeling confident,” Kiick said “When they started out serving pretty tough and we started out serving pretty weak, I think all of our strategies and plans went out the window and we went into survival mode and the game became about serve and pass."
Every time it looked like Millikin found a way to right the ship, the Big Blue got back in its own way with a service error or an errant hit.
Most of that should be a credit to the serving of Calvin, which kept the Big Blue out of its serve-receive set most of the night.
Serving is a well-known strength of the Knights.
“I don't think it's something that people know that one of Calvin's biggest strengths is the aggression in their serves,” Kiick said. “If you pass 15 feet off the net, you lose your opportunity to do anything except set a high ball.”
The defensive statistics may not be eye-popping, Calvin recorded 38 digs and Millikin had 36, but the Knights' defense moved around the court in near unison to get to seemingly every Millikin kill attempt.
That can be frustrating.
“Defensively they're very strong,” Goodey said. “There were times that I would think, 'Oh my gosh, there's no way it's going to come back up.' Then they are covering it up and playing. They were definitely a team that, offensively, to swing against was frustrating. They were every where and covered about every inch of the court the whole entire match.”
But Millikin's defense also came up when it needed to, led by 11 digs from Meredith Artime, to slow down the Knights.