BY ERIN MADDEN
The no. 2 Lady Barons pulled off the comeback of the season to win their first conference championship with a stunning five set upset of host and no. 1 Penn St.-Altoona, 19-25, 18-25, 25-19, 25-22, and 15-9.
“The girls walked out onto the court for that fifth game and they just had the sense that they knew what to do,” Head Coach Kelly Herrmann said. “They knew they had to control, be aggressive but limit their unforced errors. That’s exactly what they did in the fifth game.”
After struggling in the first two sets, Herrmann challenged the hitters to be more aggressive while playing as if there was nothing to lose. Junior outside hitter Dani Link took the challenge to heart and turned her performance around after a shaky start, leading the offense with 16 kills and 14 digs.
“Dani just turned her match around, struggled a little bit early,” Herrmann said. “All of a sudden, she just started putting the ball down.”
While Link’s performance in the final sets was incredible, the key to the Lady Barons’ comeback was the on-court energy of freshman right side hitter Bella Wedig. Wedig was prepared to come into the match at a moment’s notice despite seeing irregular playing time throughout the season and was able to provide some defensive stability. Wedig finished with 11 digs.
“I had been telling Bella to be ready for the last three matches,” Herrmann said. “I said to her yesterday that she might be the one to come in and win the match for us. Bella is a competitor. I am so thankful to have her on the team.”
Wedig added, “My goal was just to play for my girls and to play for God. I knew, coming in, that was ultimately our goal. For me, all I wanted to do was play for my girls, do what I could for them.”
Also solidifying the Lady Barons defense was junior libero Sam Kelly, who was named on the All-Tournament team at the end of the match. Kelly’s outstanding defensive effort was also key to keeping the Lady Barons in long points during the later sets, finishing with a season-high 30 digs.
“Sam’s defense was phenomenal,” Herrmann said. “She comes up with balls that nobody else could get to, and their offense stretches you out. They are going corner to corner; they tip short. They really challenged our defense, but Sam was the queen out there tonight.”
Winning the conference championship has been the goal for the Lady Barons since the first day of the first year as full members of the NCAA but having that championship come in the fourth year meant something special to the team’s two seniors, setter Amy O’Keefe and right side hitter Jackie Zucco. O’Keefe had 34 assists and was also named on the All-Tournament team.
“We talked about it, especially over the last couple of weeks, that we wanted to win it for Amy and Jackie,” Herrmann said. “Amy’s leadership on the court and Jackie’s leadership off the bench is all crucial to our win. I’m just so happy for those two because they couldn’t be more wonderful women.”
Despite winning the conference championship, the Lady Barons season is not over yet, as they received an automatic bid to the NCAA Div. III tournament.
“It’s exciting to be in the NCAA tournament,” Herrmann said. “We are building a program here at Franciscan, so this is exciting. We are going to prepare the best we can and play our best match. You see, when we play together and focus on each other, good things happen.”
The Lady Barons will take on an opponent to be determined in the first round of the NCAA tournament Nov. 14th.