‘Golds go down and out

The UW-Eau Claire volleyball team had its hands full Thursday in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

The Blugolds faced Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference champion University of St. Thomas, who delivered a 3-1 loss and a quick ticket home to Eau Claire.

“I really thought that we had a chance to win, so yeah, I’m disappointed in the loss,” first-year coach Kim Wudi said the day after the match. “But I think overall I was pleased with the way that the girls played for the most part.”

Eau Claire dropped a close first game to St. Thomas, losing 30-25, but responded with a 30-23 win in Game 2 to even things up.

The momentum switched hands again in Game 3, with St. Thomas winning yet another close game, this time winning 30-26. The momentum stayed on the Tommies’ side through the fourth game, with St. Thomas dealing the Blugolds a 30-15 loss to seal the match.

“I thought both teams came out to play,” junior Abby Freiborg said. “I don’t think we played bad at all. St. Thomas – they just had amazing defense.”

At 11-0 in the MIAC this season, St. Thomas came into Thursday’s match ranked No. 12 nationally in a CVTC/American Volleyball Coaches Association Div. III coaches’ poll. Eau Claire didn’t crack the top 25 of that poll.

But for all the disparity in national rankings, Wudi said she felt her team handled itself well against the Minnesota powerhouse.

“It was a very fast-paced game, fast-paced match all the way through,” Wudi said. “I was pleased with how we were able to control our emotions. We played fairly consistently until that fourth game.”

St. Thomas fell out of the tournament two days later with a 3-2 loss to UW-Whitewater on Saturday, which claimed first place in the WIAC earlier this season.

But as for the Blugolds, who made their earliest tournament exit since 1996, Wudi and players said they aren’t disappointed with how things turned out, and are instead looking forward to next year.

“I’m extremely happy with our season. Coming in, people didn’t expect a lot of us,” Freiborg said. “I’m really proud of our team with what we showed.”

Wudi agreed with Freiborg, and said she expects a good recruiting class to supplement a strong core of returners. She also said she wasn’t discouraged by the loss and that she was happy with the effort made by her players.

“(St. Thomas is) a great team. They deserve to be where they were,” she said. “We got beat by the better team. I can’t hang my head.”