NORTHFIELD, Minn. – The Carleton College volleyball team advanced to the semifinal round of the MIAC playoffs with one of their most thrilling victories of the season. The Knights, who were swept by St. Olaf College three days ago in regular-season finale, made the shot cross-town trek and defeated their rivals, 3-2, in an intensely contested re-match. Senior Sarah Nielsen (Altoona, Wis./Altoona) notched a team-high 21 kills for Carleton.
"We did such a great job of staying composed and aggressive tonight,” said Carleton head coach Heidi Jaynes. “We knew we created too many errors in our match against St Olaf on Saturday and that we needed to play smarter tonight. The girls were very determined, and I am so proud of how they fought hard until the end. What a great win for us!"
Despite six kills from Nielsen in the first set, the match began in the Oles’ favor. With the game tied 11-11, the St. Olaf used a 5-2 run to move in front for good. The Knights closed within a point at 17-16, but the hosts held on to take the opener by a 25-22 score.
The Knights turned the tables in the second set. Holding a slim 11-9 lead at the outset of the game, Carleton stuffed any Olaf attempt to gain ground and lengthened its lead to 20-12. As frequently happens in rivalry contests, the Oles rallied back with seven straight points, and later tied the score at 23-23. The Knights didn’t fold and clinched the set with a kill from Claire Willeck (So./Eden Prairie, Minn./Eden Prairie) and a solo block from Karen Halls (So./Edina, Minn./Edina), who figured in 10 of the Carleton’s season-high 14 blocks in the match.
Carleton and St. Olaf stayed with one another throughout the entire third set, which featured 14 ties and seven lead changes as the squads battled through some extremely long rallies. With the Knights in front, 20-19, Nielsen struck three more kills as the visitors took a 24-22 lead. The Oles twice broke game point as they won the next four points, snatching the game from the Knights’ grasp, 26-24.
Trailing 2-1 in sets, Carleton raced out to an early 8-3 lead. St. Olaf broke the Knights’ momentum with a timeout and reached within one point, 12-11. Jessa Youso (Sr./Virginia, Minn./Virginia) knocked out four kills in the set helping Carleton to increase its lead back out to five points at 21-16. Once again the Oles threatened, pulling within one point, 22-21, but this time Knights broke away, tying the match with a 25-21 victory punctuated by another Nielsen kill.
St. Olaf appeared to be cruising to an easy victory in the match-deciding fifth set, quickly grabbing a 7-3 lead. Carleton fought back though with tough backcourt play. Both teams frustrated each other’s attacks, resulting in many points being decided on tips and clever plays. With the Knights trailing 13-11, libero Camille Benson (Fy./Savage, Minn./Burnsville) served up two clutch aces to tie the game.
St. Olaf won the next point, 14-13. On the verge of elimination, Nielsen picked up her final kill, keeping Carleton’s hope alive. Youso did the same with the Knights trailing 15-14. Finally, the game evened out for the last time at 16-16. Youso then served an ace, and Halls and Willeck combined on a block to clinch a spot in the MIAC semifinals for Carleton.
While Youso tallied 16 kills for the Knights, Halls followed up with 11 of her own as she boasted a team-best .346 attack percentage. Her 10 blocks are tied for the sixth-highest figure in Carleton volleyball history and the most by Knight in more than two years.
Benson posted a season-best 37 digs—the fourth-best figure in team history—and four aces. She had help in the back row as Liz Groesbeck (So./Henderson, Nev./Green Valley) also brought 17 balls and Ashley Shin (Fy./Stanford, Calif./Palo Alto) had 16.
After struggling in the service game against the Oles three days ago to the tune of a dozen errors, Carleton had the advantage tonight. The Knights accumulated eight aces compared to only four service errors, while the Oles mis-hit nine serves compared to only four aces.
Carleton, which is in the postseason for the first time since 2007, will next travel to top-seeded University of St. Thomas for the MIAC Playoffs semifinals at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Nov. 1.