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Cal Baptist repeats as women’s volleyball champs

SAN DIEGO (BP)–Before the season began, most people in the NAIA volleyball world were ready to crown California Baptist with its second straight national title: In addition to landing a pair of top-level recruits, the Lancers were returning to action with all but one player from last year’s title team.

But when the 2005 national tournament began to play out, the Lancers’ chances seemed in doubt, until the championship match.

Verania Willis had 14 kills and Yudelka Bonilla added 11 to lift No. 2 California Baptist to a 30-26, 31-29, 30-28 win over No. 7 Columbia (Mo.) Dec. 3 in the 2005 NAIA Women’s Volleyball National Tournament in San Diego.

The win put a dramatic cap on the Lancers’ 34-5 campaign; Columbia, which was playing in its sixth national final in the past eight years, drops to 41-5.

“This one was so much more difficult than last year’s,” said head coach Ryan McGuyre, who was named the tournament’s Coach of the Year for the second straight year. “We had so many more struggles and had to deal with countless injuries all season long. We were wounded warriors but battled through. Where we are weak, God is strong.”

California Baptist becomes the first team to win back-to-back titles since Columbia did it in 1998 and 1999. And what makes the feat even more remarkable is that just 22 hours earlier, it appeared as if even an appearance in the national title match was a long shot.

On Friday, Dec. 2, Columbia dismantled the Lancers in four games in the final pool play match of the tournament, leaving the Lancers with the unenviable task of dealing with undefeated and top-seed Fresno Pacific, which had defeated the Lancers three times this year.

When it counted most, though, the Lancers responded, putting together two of its finest matches on the final two days of the tournament.

“To lose to Columbia and come back and beat them … was huge,” McGuyre said. “These girls had a never-say-die attitude. We were challenged, and we never let up, showing great perseverance. I’m going to enjoy every bit of this one.”

Indeed the championship is sweet satisfaction for McGuyre and the Lancers, who overcame adversity throughout the year. A rallying point for the tournament came from two unexpected sources — senior All-American Yajaira Prado and sophomore setter Kayla Van Duyn.

Prado, who missed more than a month and a half of action with a broken foot, returned to the court for the first time in the Lancers’ tournament opener. Despite playing with immense pain, Prado gave the Lancers a huge lift with her experience and play, averaging 3.04 kills and 3.17 digs per game.

For Van Duyn, it was learned that she had experienced family tragedy, which was not specified, shortly after arriving in San Diego for the tournament. Somehow, over the course of the week, she nevertheless managed to play some of her finest volleyball.

“Kayla was awesome all week, but especially tonight,” McGuyre said after the finals. “If it were up to me, she would have been a co-MVP of this tournament. She set the right people at the right time and was a perfect example of the resiliency that we showed as a team this year. It really is a testimony to our team that they did what they could to keep her spirits up. She was emotionally drained but was a leader out there and willed us to those last 6 points to finish up the match.”

In a show of solidarity and support, the Lancers wore ribbons in their hair. Van Duyn finished the championship match with 41 assists, 3 digs and a pair of blocks.

“This whole week has been a very emotional thing with everything that was going on,” Van Duyn said. “This just shows how amazing God is and how He carried us. We all worked together. As soon as we got here tonight, I knew that we were going to be able to get this done.”

The Lancers got it done in surprisingly dominating fashion. Although the game scores were close, the Lancers controlled play the entire match.

With the opening game tied 6-6, Bonilla registered her second kill for the first of 6 straight points. Back-to-back kills by sisters Angela and Verania Willis followed by a Bonilla ace gave the Lancers a 16-8 lead, their largest of the game. Columbia got within 20-18, but the Lancers scored 3 straight and then never led by less than 3 the rest of the way before Bonilla ended the game with a kill.

Columbia came out fighting in the second game, opening up an 8-4 lead, but that was the largest lead they would have the entire night. The Lancers scored 6 straight points, getting 4 kills from 3 different players in addition to a pair of Columbia errors. The teams then traded points and leads the rest of the way, with neither team able to take more than a 2-point advantage. Columbia actually had set-point at 29-28 on a kill, but the Lancers scored the final 3 points, the last 2 coming from Columbia errors, to take a commanding 2-0 lead.

With victory within grasp, California Baptist stormed out of the gate in the third game, scoring 7 of the first 8 points, before opening a 16-6 lead. Columbia committed 6 attack errors in the run. The Lancers led 20-11 when the Columbia began to chip away, getting within 23-20, but Lindsey Siefken restored order with a kill. The Lancers led 29-25 when Columbia got 3 straight kills prior to a pair of errors on the Lancers. But, at 29-28, Bonilla put down championship point.

Bonilla was named tournament MVP.

“[Bonilla] is a gamer,” McGuyre said. “She is easily the smartest player on the court, who understands the intricacies of the game. We ran the same play for her at match-point that we ran for her whenever we needed a point. They knew it was coming, but she was able to put it down. She can barely jump right now, and her arm is falling off, but her mind is as sharp as ever.”

In addition to Bonilla and McGuyre earning individual honors, Angela and Verania Willis were named to the all-tournament team.

Seniors Prado and Linsey Smolskis played in their final matches. Prado finished with 7 kills, 4 digs and 3 blocks. Smolskis, who was a part of two losing campaigns prior to two titles, led all players with 12 digs.

The Lancers ended up with more kills (46-41), digs (46-40), assists (43-38), aces (5-4) than Columbia and hit for a better percentage (.185-.158).

“I have two things that I live by as a coach,” McGuyre said: “You’re only as good as your last match, and there’s only one way to play. It’s nice to know that we won our last match, and we played it the only way we know how to play.”
Micah McDaniel is sports information director at California Baptist University.

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