Volleyball’s season ends against IU Kokomo in RSC Semifinals

Grenadiers fall to undefeated Cougars in four sets to conclude season at 10-7


Brandon Miniard

Sophomore Defensive Specialist Santina Schembra prepares to launch the ball midserve during a Grenadier home match against Brescia on Oct. 24, 2020.

Brandon Miniard, Sports Editor

The IU Southeast Volleyball team won five straight matches to conclude the regular season, finishing with an overall record of 9-6. All but one of their matches this season have been against River States Conference opponents, ending with a 9-5 record in such contests. Earning the #3 Seed in the RSC West, the Grenadiers hoped to make a deep postseason run beginning in the RSC Tournament.

The Grenadiers began their tournament run on Saturday, Nov. 14, against West Virginia Tech, the #2 Seed in the RSC East. The two teams share recent playoff history, as the Golden Bears eliminated the Grenadiers in five sets in the RSC Quarterfinals a year ago. They also played once this season on Oct. 10, with the Grenadiers being victorious in five sets.

This year’s quarterfinal matchup would not be as close, as the Grenadiers swept the Golden Bears in three sets (25-23, 26-24, 25-18). Advancing to the RSC Semifinals on Wednesday, Nov. 18, they faced their biggest test yet in RSC Regular-Season champion IU Kokomo. The two teams played twice already this year, with the undefeated Cougars sweeping both contests, the first on Oct. 3 at Kokomo, followed by a contest on Oct. 20 at the Activities Building.

“We were cautiously optimistic because we were healthier than last time, and we know how to play them well,” Head Coach Eric Brian said before the contest.” We had the advantage in two of the three sets in our last match against IUK; we just didn’t close them out.”

The Grenadiers entered the matchup confident that they could match the Cougars’ overpowering lineup, especially since their own roster was now at full power. In their second contest on Oct. 20, the Grenadiers were without star freshman Emilee Organ, who missed three matches due to injury.

That confidence mattered little in the third meeting, which the Cougars took by set scores of 25-17, 25-12, 20-25, 25-19. The match marked the second time in the last three seasons the Grenadiers’ season ended at the paws of the Cougars.

“We were thinking that we needed to play this match as if it were any other on our schedule,” Senior Setter Hannah Sipe said. “We tried to play every match like it’s our last, so we went out and competed.”

The first set started off tightly contested, as the Cougars could only keep a lead as high as four thanks to early kills from juniors Delaney Nichols and Jennie Malone. When the score reached 18-14, the Cougars capitalized on four attack errors as they scored seven of the last 10 points to take the first set 25-17.

The second set was all in favor of the Cougars as they took advantage of more attack errors to jump out to an early 11-4 lead, including a pair each by freshmen Organ and Izzy Stallard. The Grenadiers were able to cut the deficit to 13-8 on a kill from Sipe, but the Cougars surged once again, using a 12-4 run to easily capture the second period 25-12, capped by a service ace from Libero Macee Rudy.

The Grenadiers were not done yet despite being down two sets and on the brink of elimination as the third set began. Rallying around kills from Nichols, Malone, Alexis Bassett, and Organ, the Grenadiers took the lead that grew to 18-11 at one point. The Cougars showed resilience of their own as they battled back to shrink the deficit to 23-19, but a Cougars attack error and a kill by Malone gave the Grenadiers momentum as they took the third period 25-20.

“We changed our energy level and our expectation from just playing the game to having a sense of purpose,” Brian said of his team’s third set performance. “It made a difference in how we played defense and how we executed offensively.”

The fourth set started in a similar fashion to the first, as the Grenadiers trailed, yet kept close courtesy of kills by Organ and Makendri Fisher. With the score at 13-10, the Cougars capitalized on blocking a Nichols kill attempt, as well as three consecutive kills from Lorelei Porter to create some breathing room. Organ chipped the deficit to 23-18 with a kill, but the Grenadiers dropped two of the final three points to seal the match and their season.

“[IU Kokomo is] just really consistent and they stuck with what worked for them,” Brian said. “They were just a better team than us.”

While the two sides were equal in most offensive categories, the Cougars were more efficient, hitting 22.3 percent and committing only 16 errors in 148 total attacks as opposed to the Grenadiers, who hit 11.3 percent and committed 28 miscues in 168 total attacks.

Four Grenadiers recorded double-digit digs, led by Burman’s 19. Sipe recorded a double-double with a match-high 41 assists and season-high 15 digs. Malone led the Grenadiers with a season-high 13 kills while Bassett and Nichols each chipped in eight.

Following the conclusion of the match, the Grenadiers sat in the visitors’ locker room amidst a cloud of contradicting emotions. Some players felt a wave of relief wash over them from having completed a season while in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Others had more somber hearts, including those of the Grenadiers’ trio of seniors in Sipe, Burman, and Bassett.

“The bus ride home was kind of quiet,” Burman said of the Grenadiers’ mood following the match. “We knew that we had played decently against [IU Kokomo] in the past, but just couldn’t get the job done against them this time.”

Unlike in a normal season, all three seniors have the option to return for a fifth year, courtesy of NAIA legislation that will not charge a year of eligibility to all athletes competing in a fall or winter sport this season due to COVID-19. Despite having such a rare opportunity at their disposal, all three seniors agreed that their careers in the classroom are too close to completion to consider extending their careers on the hardwood.

“I think it is great to have the opportunity for those seniors who have to return in the fall for classes, but it does not affect me personally,” Bassett said. “I only have two more classes left to graduate with my B.S. in Sociology with a minor in Criminal Justice this spring, so I will not be returning the following fall.

Regardless of whether or not any of these seniors choose to take advantage of this extra year, Brian is more than satisfied with the contributions the trio has made over the past four years.

“All three are excellent players, excellent teammates, and even better people,” he said. “They are low maintenance and reliable on and off the court. They have been leaders all four years and leave a huge mark on the program.”