CHICAGO – The stage was set for a thrilling night of volleyball and the University of Chicago and Aurora University didn't disappoint in front of a rowdy Ratner Athletics Center crowd in Saturday's NCAA Division III Regional semifinals.
But in a back-and-forth battle between two Chicagoland teams, it was the upstart Aurora Spartans (25-8) who came out on top, upsetting the host Maroons (29-5) in five sets, 18-25, 25-17, 23-25, 30-28, 15-10.
In Head Coach Sharon Dingman's fifth season at the helm, No. 10 UChicago concluded its year with the best winning percentage in program history (0.853) and hosted the NCAA Regional for the first time after attaining the No. 1 regional ranking in the final two weeks of the season.
Saturday, three players led UChicago's offense in kills, with sophomore Mikayla Hardy emerging into the spotlight with 15 kills and 15 digs, both career highs. Senior outside hitter Audrey Scrafford added 12 kills (.250) and junior middle hitter Madison Pearson added 12 kills and seven digs in the five-set marathon, which featured four UChicago match points in the fourth set.
Sophomore setter Emma Griffith added 57 assists – five off the school match record of 62 – and added 21 digs. Defensively, first-year outside hitter Temilade Adekoya had 16 digs, sophomore libero Katherine Wilson had 10 and senior rightside hitter Sarah Muisenga added 11 digs and seven kills in her final match in a Maroon uniform.
UChicago quickly gained control early with methodical 25-18 set one win, but the Spartans showed their grit – and the reason why they upset No. 9-ranked Trinity University (Texas) on Friday – by coming back in set two, 25-17.
In the third set, it appeared Aurora might gain the upper hand of the match with a 22-20 lead late. But Hardy and Scrafford entered the match and made an immediate impact down the stretch of set three, recording three kills to help the Maroons net the next three points en route to a 25-23 win.
The fourth set proved to be match's tipping point.
With UChicago nabbing a late lead behind the arm of Hardy – she had 10 of her 15 kills in the fourth set – the Maroons appeared primed to take the match and advance into Sunday's regional final. But the Spartans' defense proved stingy, and Aurora withstood four UChicago match points to stay alive.
Julia Wood's service ace would seal the 30-28 win to set up the fifth set, which Aurora controlled early, leading 8-3. That lead proved to be too much to overcome, as the Spartans took the match with a 15-10 win.
Serves hurt the Maroons, who missed 15 while the Spartans excelled behind the service line, totaling eight aces. The taller Aurora squad also had more net presence, recording 10 total blocks – led by six block assists from Samantha Weising and five more by Imani Freeman – compared to five for UChicago.
Katie Vondra led Aurora's attack with 18 kills and setter Emily Lines had 49 assists, and the Spartans totaled a whopping 114 digs, led by Vondra (27) and Mikayla Fincher (25).
Aurora advances to Sunday's regional final, where it will take on Illinois Wesleyan (27-5) at 1 p.m. CT at the Ratner Athletics Center. The winner will head to next weekend's NCAA Elite Eight round in Pittsburgh, Pa.
Muisenga and Scrafford conclude their careers with over 1,000 kills -- Muisenga with 1,133 and Scrafford with 1,207. Muisenga also goes into the record books with 1,157 digs.