Volleyball drops championship match to Dayton in five-se­t nailbiter


Bill Barrett

Saint Louis University women’s volleyball nearly turned home-court advantage into a surprise conference championship victory in the 2016 A-10 conference tournament. They fell in only five sets to the Dayton Flyers in the finals after getting past Davidson and Rhode Island to reach that matchup.

Before the championship tournament started, SLU senior outside hitter Danielle Rygelski was named Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Year. She is only the third Billiken volleyball player to ever receive the award, and the first since Sammi McCloud won the award in 2009.

Rygelski won the award based on strong performances all season. She earned a record seven Atlantic 10 Conference Player of the Week awards throughout the season. She led the entire NCAA in kills per set (6.01), total points (710.5) and total kills (627). She also led the A-10 in aces per set (0.53, seventh in the NCAA), attacks per set (13.61, fourth in the NCAA), points per set (6.77, second in the NCAA) and total attacks (1429, seventh nationally).

Rygelski also has the second-best (31 versus George Mason), third-best (29 versus Davidson), sixth-best (26 versus Illinois State) and 12th-best (24 versus GW) three-set kill totals in the NCAA this season, showing her prowess in short games.

She finished second amongst all NCAA volleyball players in kills, with exactly 2,000 kills, the most that a Billiken has ever had in the rally-scoring era. Rygelski, an education major, also earned a spot on the conference All-Academic team. The senior has a 3.58 cumulative grade point average.

She was the clear leader for the Billikens as they faced the Davidson Wildcats in the first championship match. The first match for the No. 3-seeded Billikens came against the Davidson Wildcats, who the Billikens had just beaten in their final homestand of the regular season. The Billikens repeated the feat, downing the Wildcats by a score of three sets to one.

The first set saw Rygelski tally five kills, three aces and three digs to lead SLU to a 25-17 set victory. The Billikens defense was quite strong in the first set, holding Davidson to only a .050 attack percentage. Then, in the second set, Rygelski erupted for 11 kills, but the Billikens just barely held on for the victory, 25-23.

After the break, the Wildcats came out strong with a 25-21 set victory, which came despite another torrid performance from Rygelski, who recorded nine kills. In the final set, which SLU won 25-14 to close out the game, senior middle blocker Taylor Paulson and junior outside hitter Nenye Okoro took some of the scoring load off of Rygelski by scoring five kills each.

In the match, Rygelski was the standout performer. She had 28 kills, eight digs, six aces, a block and an assist to go along with a .302 attack percentage.

Senior setter Ashley Gagen also had a good game, with 42 assists to go along with 10 digs to record her first career double-double. Paulson finished the match with 10 kills and a .412 attack percentage. Junior middle blocker Lauren Leverenz had 7 kills on 12 swings for a .417 attack percentage, and Okoro had nine kills and 10 digs, barely missing a double-double.

The Billikens then faced off against No. 2 seed Rhode Island, a team that had defeated SLU in Rhode Island earlier this season. However, the first set went to the Billikens 25-20, behind perfect attack percentages from Paulson and Leverenz, who had four and two kills, respectively.

Rhode Island then squeaked out a victory in the second set, 25-23, despite six kills from Rygelski. After the break, Rhode Island’s offense was snuffed out by the SLU defense, and posted a .000 attack percentage compared to SLU’s .429 attack percentage. Rygelski had six kills on six attacks in the third set.

Rhode Island then won the fourth set 25-20 to push the game to a decisive fifth set. In the pressure-filled tiebreaking set, SLU prevailed 15-11 because of Okoro and Paulson each having two kills without an error on four attacks.

Rygelski was the best attacker in the match, notching 25 kills and 11 digs for her 14th double-double of the season. Junior libero Mackenzie Long led the Billiken defense with 14 digs, but also chipped in on offense with four service aces. Meanwhile, Leverenz had nine kills and two blocks against the Rhode Island Rams.

Finally, SLU faced off against No. 1 seed Dayton in the final, and went in as clear underdogs because the Dayton Flyers had already defeated SLU twice in 3-0 sweeps in the regular season. The Billikens won the first set 25-21 with eight kills on nine attacks from Okoro.

However, Dayton hit .516 as a team in the second set to win 25-20. SLU’s offense was also strong, with a .324 attack percentage, but Dayton’s attack was too potent. Rygelski had a strong second set, with 10 kills on 15 attempts.

The Billikens then took the third set 25-23 behind seven kills from Rygelski and four kills on four attacks from Paulson. Rygelski then had nine kills in the fourth set, but the Flyers still won the contest 25-20. The decisive fifth set then went against SLU, as the Billikens lost 15-9 because of a .471 attack percentage from Dayton.

Rygelski’s senior season proved to be a great one, as she had an NCAA-record 715 kills. That is the most single-season kills in the 25-point rally scoring era. She also ended with exactly 2000 career kills, and became only the second Billiken to reach 2,000 career kills and the only one to reach the milestone in the rally-scoring era. She finished with 15 double-doubles on the season.

Okoro also chipped in with her second double-double of the season, with 15 kills and 14 digs. Meanwhile, senior setter Ashley Gagen finished her career on a strong note, earning a career-best 53 assists in her final game. Paulson had 10 kills and a .364 attack percentage against the Flyers, and she ended her career with a .296 attack percentage, tying Megan Gilbert for sixth on SLU’s all-time list.

While SLU’s loss to the Flyers was a heartbreaking five-set affair, SLU can be proud of their achievements as a relative underdog and will look to regroup next season.

They will have to cope with the loss of several starters, including outside hitter Danielle Rygelski, who has provided much of their offensive output this season, Taylor Paulson, who has been a reliable starter and strong defender at the middle blocker position, and setter Ashley Gagen, who showed some of her best form in her career towards the end of the 2016 season in A-10 conference play.

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