This volleyball season has been a helluva ride for the Seawolves, who since August have generally cruised, pedal floored, tires tracking smoothly between the lines — their school-record, 20-game winning streak announced it and their current 12-game winning streak seconded it.
For a moment there Thursday afternoon, though, the steering got a little loose, things started to drift sideways and the Seawolves glimpsed the ditch.
Not to worry – no panic from UAA. A nimble correction on the course, and it was all good.
After absorbing a first-set loss that was its most lopsided of the season, UAA rebounded to beat Angelo State of Texas in four sets in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and advance to Friday's semifinal match against Palm Beach Atlantic in the NCAA Division II Championships.
And so the Seawolves' joyous journey continues, each match one step deeper into the postseason than the program has ever traveled.
The volleyball team joins the school's women's and men's basketball teams as Seawolves programs that have advanced as far as the Final Four. The women's basketball team lost in the championship game last spring and fell in the semis in both 2009 and 2008. The men lost in the championship game in 1988 and in the semis in 2008.
UAA (33-2), seeded sixth in the eight-team tournament at the Sanford Pavilion, knocked off third-seeded Angelo State (34-4) 14-25, 25-22, 27-25, 25-16. Next up is second-seeded Palm Beach Atlantic (32-3), which swept seventh-seeded South Carolina-Aiken.
The Seawolves (33-2) earned their semifinal berth, in part, outside hitter Leah Swiss explained, because they flushed a failure instead of allowing it to percolate in their heads. They met that first-set loss – "A little bit rough,'' Seawolves head coach Chris Green called it, in his often understated way — with bounce-back borne of resolve and confidence.
"We're not actually a first-set team, and we know that, so it was kind of a wake-up call,'' Swiss said. "We weren't playing as a team. We were playing as individuals. In the next three sets, we played as a team and we trusted each other.
"We just say, 'Next set, that's over with, that's in the past.' "
UAA outside hitter Chrisalyn Johnson said the Seawolves shed their nerves after the first set and leaned on their ability to rebound.
"I think we're really good at that,'' she said. "We play as a unit and pick each other up.''
Indeed, the Seawolves are 8-2 when they lose the first set.
[Relive UAA's four-set win over Western Washington in the West Regional Championship, in which Morgan Hooe returned from in-match injury]
[Freshman setter Madison Fisher had not played a second all season until she surrendered her red-shirt year to help get UAA to the NCAA Division II Championships]
[UAA All-American setter Morgan Hooe began learning the game as a child sitting on the bench near her father, Virgil, an Alaska volleyball coaching legend]
Johnson and Swiss, sophomore outside hitters who are both Dimond High alums, helped trigger the turnaround.
Johnson is just 5-foot-8, but the former Alaska high school long jump champion possesses such serious hops she looks like she can jump out of the gym. She hammered a match-high 20 kills on a .217 hitting percentage well above her average (.131) and supplemented that defensively with 16 digs for her 12th double-double of the season.
Swiss, a second-team All-American, rang in with 19 kills on a .263 hitting percentage that eclipsed her average (.244). She complemented that attacking with 17 digs for her 14th double-double of the season, and fourth straight, and added three service aces to improve her team-leading total to 50.
The Seawolves called upon Johnson and Swiss even more than usual, Green said, because the Belles defended freshman right side hitter Diana Fa'amausili so aggressively. Fa'amausili nonetheless generated seven kills on 21 attacks and a .286 attack percentage.
Johnson and Swiss combined for 65 percent of UAA's attacks compared to their usual combination of 52-plus percent. Green called their work "amazing for two outside hitters going against a really good defense.''
He's not too shabby himself. Earlier Thursday, Green and his second-year assistant, Sheldon Carvahlo, were named Division II Coach of the Year and Assistant Coach of the Year, respectively, by the American Volleyball Coaches Association.
All Green has done in nine seasons at UAA is go 192-71 (.730 winning percentage) and lead the Seawolves to the NCAA tournament in the last four straight seasons and seven of the last eight seasons.
Meanwhile, senior setter Morgan Hooe, the first-team All-American and on-court captain who injured her right knee in Saturday's West Region championship win over Western Washington, traded her knee brace for a less restrictive one. She delivered 46 assists that leave her just four shy of tying UAA's career record – Janelle Morrisette's mark of 3,853 (1998-2001) will surely fall Friday – and 19 digs.
Fa'amausili and freshman middle blocker Vanessa Hayes proved pivotal in blunting the attack of Angelo State first-team All-American hitter Mallory Blauser.
Blauser bludgeoned the Seawolves for six first-set kills but was limited to 10 kills over the next three sets. And the Seawolves held her to a .131 attack percentage, well below her .304 average.
"We could not stop her in the first set,'' Swiss said. "In the second, third and fourth sets, we put a block up and got to know her tendencies.''
Angelo State entered the match with a .263 team hitting percentage, but UAA curbed that to just .194. Note that the Seawolves, who also received 26 digs from sophomore libero Kyla Militante-Amper, entered the match holding opponents to a .120 hitting percentage, which ranked them seventh in the nation.
Even so, the Belles battled.
UAA in the second set three times held six-point leads before winning 25-22. In the third set, the Seawolves led by eight points on four occasions before fending off one set point – Angelo State escaped one set point too – and winning 27-25. UAA twice led the fourth set by 10 points.
That third set, when UAA saw its large lead vanish, could have been a tide-turning moment in Angelo State's favor. Yet the Seawolves steadied themselves. Hooe recalled the Seawolves twice went to extra points at Central Washington in October and won the second and third sets 31-29 for a sweep, so they have some experience with extended sets.
"I think we stayed calm, and I think that's what I admire most about our team, is we're able to stay calm in really pressure situations, where maybe other teams might freak out a little bit,'' Hooe said at the post-match press conference.
"And the coach maybe freaks out,'' Green interjected.
"And the coach a lot,'' Hooe countered.
Coach and captain shared a laugh.
When you're headed to the national semifinals and riding a 12-match winning streak, it's easier to relax.
Joyous journeys are comfortable that way.
NCAA Division II Volleyball Championships
Sanford Pavilion, Sioux Falls, S.D.
UAA (33-2) vs. Palm Beach Atlantic (32-3), 2 p.m. AST
Video/live stats: ncaa.com
Watch party: UAA will hold a free watch party at the Alaska Airlines Center. Doors open at 1 p.m. and concessions stands will be open.