GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. - The Wittenberg Tigers ran their NCAA Division III Tournament winning streak to seven with a 3-0 first round sweep of Ohio Northern in a match played at Calvin College.
Ranked No. 2 nationally, the Tigers improved to 26-4 overall in 2012 and 6-5 in 11 all-time NCAA Division III Tournament matches against Ohio Northern. Wittenberg advanced to take on fifth-ranked Hope, 3-0 winners over 10th-ranked Otterbein in the quarterfinals, at 4:30 p.m. Friday. Ohio Northern, which placed third in the Ohio Athletic Conference, saw its season end at 23-7.
Wittenberg may be the defending national champion, but the Tigers' line-up in 2012 features just three players who saw extensive action in the 2011 tournament title run. Head Coach Paco Labrador knew a key for his team would be how quickly his inexperienced players adapted to the pressure and shook off any nerves.
"The question for us was going to be how the young players would react to the bright lights and the big stage," said Labrador, who owns a career record of 322-45 in nine seasons at Wittenberg. "After a little bit of a slow start, I thought we responded well. We had a lot of different players step up."
Kara Seidenstricker (London, Ohio/Jonathan Alder), the NCAC and Great Lakes Region Freshman of the Year, was one of those players who improved as the match progressed. She finished the first set with two kills and two errors as the Tigers pulled out a 25-23 win after trailing early in the set. She pounded eight kills without an error in the second set en route to a match-high 19 kills and a .341 attack percentage as Wittenberg took the second set 25-20 and the third by a 25-17 count.
Senior Jessica Batanian (Sylvania, Ohio/Notre Dame) added 14 kills and junior Andrea Behling (Columbus, Ind./North) was strong in the middle with 10 kills. Defensively, the Tigers put four players in double figures in digs, led by two-time NCAC Libero of the Year Christina Gilene (Milford, Ohio/McNicholas), who finished with 21.
The biggest and perhaps most significant statistical disparity in the match was service aces, as the Tigers finished with eight from five different players. Defensively, Wittenberg did not allow a single Ohio Northern ace, allowing the Tigers to consistently put pressure on the Polar Bears.
The win was an important first step for the Tigers, who face the same daunting Great Lakes Region challenge as they did in 2011 en route to the national championship. Five of the top 13 teams in the latest national rankings are grouped at one regional site, including top-ranked host Calvin and the second-ranked Tigers. Labrador is pleased with the way both the young players are accepting the challenge and the way his four seniors continue to lead by example.
"I told our seniors at our very first scrimmage that the challenge for this team was going to be how we are able to come together," Labrador said. "The seniors knew that they would have to play their best every time out for us to have a chance to challenge for another championship. They did that again today."