Keep Fighting: Jimmies reach NAIA semifinals for third straight year
The University of Jamestown took on Bellevue University in the NAIA National Volleyball Tournament quarterfinals Thursday evening.
75 minutes before she took the floor at the Tyson Events Center with the University of Jamestown women's volleyball team on Thursday, Taylor Sabinash sent a special Facebook message to her grandma, Lynn Spitzer.
"Thank you for always supporting me, throughout any team I have been on," Sabinash said in the message. "You've always been there for me and now it's my time to be there for you.
"You've always been my biggest fan and I want to show you some of yours."
Sabinash panned the camera toward her teammates who all shouted:
"Keep fighting Grandma Lynn!"
The message and sentiment gave Sabinash -- and the Jimmies -- some extra juice to keep fighting themselves.
Up two sets to none against 11th-ranked Bellevue University, Sabinash and her teammates found themselves one point away from winning the team's third consecutive NAIA National Volleyball Tournament quarterfinal. The score stood at 26-25 Jimmies when the 6-foot-1 right side, paired up with Corina Huff to stuff Bellevue's Eve Fountain and secure the win.
Jamestown's win streak now stands at 35-straight matches, 30 of which have been sweeps. UJ's win over the Bruins clinches the team's third NAIA National Volleyball Tournament semifinal berth in three years.
The Jimmies will face the winner of the Park University and University of Providence quarterfinal tilt on Friday at 5 p.m. in the semis.
"All of us were pumping with adrenaline," Sabinash said. "We were going over highlights a little bit ago and a lot of us were like, oh my gosh, did I black out during the game? That was such a high intensity that I don't even remember part of it."
The third set was a back-and-forth battle between the Jimmies and Bruins, forcing Sabinash and her teammates to make like Grandma Lynn and dig deep and fight.
Smashes from Sabinash, Anna Holen and an ace by Jackie Meiklejohn put the Jimmies ahead 3-1, but the Bruins hung around to take a 9-7 lead. The back and forth battle continued with three unanswered points scored by the Jimmies to regain the lead 15-12.
Bellevue answered with a 4-0 run before a kill from Jayla Ritter made it 16 all. The back half of the third saw nine tied scores before the Sabinash-Huff stuff.
"We just went into it today with so much enthusiasm," Sabinash said. "You could just feel that we were strong and we were as one. It was incredible, I mean, that was some of our best volleyball."
Sabinash's volleyball career will end after the 2021 NAIA tournament, as the senior will be graduating at the end of December with a degree in exercise science. This season has been a rocky one for the senior to say the least.
Two months ago Sabinash was experiencing a number of shoulder issues that she was planning to resolve with a cortisone shot. The day before her shot, in a practice, she landed wrong and fractured her ankle.
Through her 57 sets played, Sabinash has tallied 103 kills and more than 15 blocks. Last season, the right-side played 110 sets and ended with a career-high of 230 kills and 62 blocks. The 2019-20 season marked Sabinash's best blocking season on record. She tallied 106 through 139 sets played.
While she might not be putting up the numbers Jimmie fans are used to seeing, Sabinash is hitting at the highest kill percentage of her career at .314. On Thursday, the senior hit a team-high of .385.
"I was out for a while and getting back into it has been really tough," Sabinash said. "It's not the same and the shoulder issues are coming back as the shot is obviously wearing off, so that's been really difficult."
Just like her grandma, the right side has been fighting through the adversity that has been thrown at her.
"I want to dedicate this whole tournament to her. She has gone through so much. She is the strongest woman and definitely has a lot of fight in her and that's where I get that from. Senior year hasn't been the greatest, but I am trying to make the most of it and give it my all for her."
If Grandma Lynn would have been in the Tyson Events Center, it's a sure bet she would have been proud of the family fight Sabinash showcased.
Sabinash was leading both the Jimmie and Bruin attackers through one set with three kills. The senior right-side hit a monstrous .750 in the team's first pool-play match against Texas Wesleyan and a .385 against Indiana Wesleyan on Wednesday. Four Jimmie attackers, including Sabinash, ended up with seven kills against the Bruins. Anna Holen was the team leader with eight.
As a team, the Jimmies were well below their typical .304 hitting average at .174, but it was still plenty ahead of Bellevue who ended the match at .041. The Bruins had two attackers in the negative range.
"Bellevue played tremendous defense and they are aggressive and they work incredibly hard," UJ head coach Jon Hegerle said in an interview with ESPN Jamestown. "It was a fun match and we just feel really grateful to move on."
Three out of the Bruins' first four points came off the block. 2020-21 NAIA Setter of the Year, Olivia Galas helped Bellevue race out to a 6-4 lead in the first set while the 2020 Northstar Freshman of the Year, Haley Fleischman, used her hops to get up on right side Kalli Hegerle and outside Aleah Zieske.
With a veteran, scrappy and locked in team on the other side of the net, Bellevue soon found themselves in some trouble.
The Jimmies forced a couple of attack errors by Jacki Apel and Eve Fountain off blocks from Huff and Sabinash and while the defense was making the stops, setters Megan Gaffaney and Jackie Meiklejohn continued to keep the offense running.
A bullet by Zieske kickstarted a 7-0 run that made the score 16-7. A double contact called on Gaffaney gave the Bruins a much-needed break but it was short-lived, as, on the next point, Sabinash powered one past Fountain to make it 17-8.
Bellevue fought its way back to come within four of the game leaders, mainly due to attack and setting errors by the Jimmies. Hegerle stretched the Jimmies' lead to five with a kill, but a 3-0 run, led by a couple kills from Fountain, made it 20-23 Jimmies.
Zieske made it set-point, but a pair of attacks from Fountain and Apel coupled with another error on the Jimmies made it anyone's game. Following Hegerle's first timeout, Anna Holen ended it with a shot drilled off an assist from Gaffaney.
"I think we are looking at this tournament as do or die," Sabinash said. "We are not thinking about the future, we're not thinking about the past, we are putting our all into the game in front of us. We don't want to be too confident going in. We call ourselves the No. 1 underdog."
Jamestown was six points away from ending the second set before Bellevue even got into the double digits. Sierra Athen brought her team within nine of the game leaders, rocketing one off the hands of Anna Holen. A few more sporadic kills and some Jimmie errors allowed five more Bruins' points, but the nearly 10-point cushion wasn't easily deflated.
Kills from Zieske, Huff and Ritter solidified the second set win.
"Every match is a learning process and it can build or take away from confidence so to be in those situations and come out of it continues to grow our belief in ourselves and our belief in what we do," Hegerle said. "We are just thanking God all of the time and saying thank you for giving us these gifts and this experience."
A potential national team title and trophy would be pretty special gifts to bring back to Jimmie nation, but Sabinash said prayers for Grandma Lynn would be an even more precious way to cap off her career.
"She has been such a great supporter," Sabinash said. "She used to drive me to all my games no matter what team I have been on, she's always been there for me."
University of Jamestown 3, Bellevue University 0
BELL 23 15 25
UJ 25 25 27
BELL -- Kills: Eve Fountain 13, Sierra Athen 9, Haley Fleischman 7, Jacki Apel 3, Nicole Meyer 3, Olivia Galas 1. Assists: Galas 34. Digs: Taylan Keefer 25, Athen 12, Fountain 9, Brooklyn Hundt 8, Galas 7, Raeanne Kimoto 4, Apel 3, Fleischman 1. Aces: Jorie Lincon 1, Keefer 1. Blocks: Fleischman 5, Meyer 5, Galas 3, Fountain 2, Athen 2, Apel 1.
UJ -- Kills: A. Holen 8, Sabinash 7, Huff 7, Zieske 7, Hegerle 7, Ritter 6, Gaffaney 1. Assists: Jackie Meiklejohn 20, Gaffaney 16, E. Holen 3, Hannah Schiele 2. Digs: E. Holen 23, A. Holen 21, Meiklejohn 8, Gaffaney 8, Schiele 4, Averi Beyer 3, Ritter 2, Huff 1, Sabinash 1, Zieske 1. Aces: Gaffney 1, Meiklejohn 1. Bocks: Ritter 6, Hegerle 5, Sabinash 4, Huff 4.