The Rowan volleyball team defeated Kean University just two weeks ago in four sets to clinch the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage in the New Jersey Athletic Conference (NJAC) Championship Tournament.
On Saturday, Nov. 5, the Profs beat the Cougars for the second time this season, but this time it was for the NJAC Championship. Rowan beat Kean 3-1 to win their second consecutive title and qualified for the NCAA tournament with the automatic bid.
But for this Rowan team, the title meant more than just back-to-back crowns. With their coach battling cancer last season and coming back stronger this year, their star outside hitter returning for her graduate year, a sophomore setter that lead the conference, and two freshman standouts who made an impact early, this title proved that Rowan volleyball is a force to be reckoned with and that they are here to stay.
“It means everything. The fact that we did it back-to-back years is a big deal, to know that it wasn’t just one and done and that the program is moving forward in a positive direction,” Head Coach Deana Jespersen, 2021 and 2022 NJAC Coach of the Year said.
The intensity was high inside Esby Gymnasium, and the first set reflected that. The first half of the set was very evenly matched, but toward the end, the Cougars built up a 19-16 lead. After a Profs’ timeout, Rowan went on a 5-0 run to eventually take the lead 22-20. Three kills from Natalie Ogden and one from Sydni Greenwood allowed the Profs’ to take the first set 25-23.
Although Rowan started off the second set with a service ace, Kean was able to rattle off three straight points to take the lead. The Cougars never looked back and extended to a 14-8 advantage. They maintained that lead throughout the set and took it 25-18 to even it up one apiece.
The Profs made key adjustments in the third and fourth sets to seal the deal, which included major comebacks in the third set.
“Coach [Jespersen] told us, this is our house and we gotta get hungry,” freshman defensive specialist Vanessa Hutchinson said. “And we all just turned the switch and we were ready to play.”
Despite a 5-0 lead for the Cougars to start off the third set, Rowan started to chip away and cut the deficit. The Profs scored seven straight to give them a 9-7 edge.
This momentous comeback in the third set allowed Rowan to sway the momentum to their side. The serving played a pivotal role, the huge arms of the Profs stepped up, and the defense grinded out on the court.
In the middle of the set, Kean pulled themselves within striking distance once again, but Rowan eventually extended their lead to 24-13, the largest lead of the match. Even though the Cougars tried to rally late and pulled within five, Rowan had amassed too large of a lead and finished off the third set 25-19 to take a 2-1 lead.
Ogden, who was named the NJAC Player of the Year and had four kills in the third set alone, cited how much the Profs’ energy played a huge part in the match.
“The fire we had, the energy we brought, every single time we had a kill, [a] block, we were all screaming our heads off,” Ogden said. “Leading up to this game we were all just talking about how last year how good it felt to win, we were all so ready to play, and it really showed tonight.”
In the fourth set with Hutchinson starting behind the line, the Profs were able to grab a 3-0 with two service aces and a kill from Ogden.
Hutchinson, who led the way with five service aces, discussed what led to her success while serving on the biggest stage.
“I just knew to target the spots that Emma [Assistant Coach Emma Cormican] was giving me, and focusing on my toss,” Hutchinson said. “We’ve been practicing serving so much recently and I knew that now was the time it needed to translate.”
In the middle of the set, Rowan led 13-7 backed by three kills in a row from Jena Kaul, the other freshman on Rowan’s roster.
The duo of Kaul and Ogden combined for 29 of the Profs’ 47 kills on the day. Coach Jespersen reflected on what she saw from her outsides, and how they were able to adjust throughout the entirety of the match.
“When we changed some things, we talked about, we weren’t going to win the tight ball game, if we put that ball too tight we aren’t going to win that game because their blockers are too good,” Coach Jespersen said. “So we talked about getting the ball off the net and looking for it inside, and once we started to do those things Jena [Kaul] and Natalie [Ogden] were able to swing differently. There was some frustration, but reminding them that we’re all in this together, you don’t do this by yourselves.”
Nearing the end of the fourth set Rowan led 21-16. Backed by strong defense from Hutchinson, kills and a huge block from Ogden, the Profs had match point with a 24-21 lead.
“I just got into the mindset like, ‘this could be our final game, you never know.’ I just wanted to give it my all, go all out, we kept saying ball out,” Ogden said. “Gotta get that finish mentality, we said we’re the reigning champions so we have to play like it.”
With their season on the line, Kaul stepped up and fired a missile to seal the deal for the Profs, winning the fourth set 25-21.
Hutchinson, who led the way with 16 digs, reflected on what this moment meant to her.
“Jena [Kaul] and I have been talking about this game literally the whole season, I was definitely so nervous but the whole team was so supportive,” Hutchinson said. “It was just so much fun, just playing out there with everybody, it’s actually surreal, I just feel like we had the confidence the whole time and everybody picked each other up.”
Ogden finished with 18 kills and 11 digs, while Kaul added 11 kills and four blocks. Greenwood added seven kills, while Courtney Rhoden had five blocks. Simone Sparano had 14 digs and setter Brooke Adams had 42 assists.
With this championship victory, the Profs have solidified themselves as the best team in the NJAC for the second year in a row. They will go to the NCAA tournament for a second consecutive time with a 24-6 record.
“I’m just ridiculously proud. We know how to win, but that’s a really talented team that we just played, to know how to win, and to know how to execute that, and having to execute that flawlessly, because if we gave them an inch, they were going to take a mile,” Coach Jespersen said. “So I think I’m just really proud of how they seemed to have grown in that moment.”
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