ROCHESTER -- The Ridgewater College volleyball team won a second-straight NJCAA Division III national championship with a four-game win over Brookhaven on Saturday.
In a taut four-setter that seemed like it went five, the Warriors won the title 31-29, 17-25, 29-27, 25-22.
Ridgewater finished 31-3 overall, the program's best winning percentage. The championship was the Warriors' third in six years and fourth overall.
Ridgewater won the 2010 national title over Brookhaven, which was the 2009 national champ. Ridgewater was knocked out in the semifinals in 2009, which fueled the Warriors' run last year. This year, the team entered the tournament with a different approach, as well as many different players, said Ridgewater sophomore hitter Hannah Smith.
"The freshmen had a few nerves, but the sophomores had experience from last year and knew what it was like," said Smith, who was named the tournament's Most Valuable Player. "It was butterflies more than anything. We were excited to play more than nervous."
That was a good thing, considering the nature of the championship match. Only four times in victories this season were the Warriors pressed to earn more than 25 points to win games. On Saturday, two of the four games went overtime, and for the first time this year the Warriors had to win 30 points or more to take a game.
"I think we came in pretty confident in ourselves," said sophomore setter Molly Hurrle, who was named to the all-tournament team. "We worked very hard. We knew what we wanted to do, we had our goal in mind."
In addition to Smith and Hurrle, two Warriors freshmen, hitters Taylor Elzenga and Kelsey Stommes, were named to the all-tournament team. Head coach Joe Sussenguth was named coach of the year.
That combination underscored the kind of year the Warriors had on their way to repeating.
Only four sophomores -- Hurrle, Smith, Aimee Johnson and Karli Wendlandt -- returned from last year's team. Sussenguth had to meld that core with 10 incoming freshmen.
"This year's team, with all the new people coming in, we knew we had talent but I was not certain we would get back to the championship match," Sussenguth said. "But this group established how they were going to play. They had the attitude that they were going to control matches and where they were going to go."
"This was a completely different team," Hurrle said. "We took in a bunch of freshmen and we had a lot of different people at different positions. But we worked hard and came together."
That was evident in the championship match against a strong Brookhaven team. The Warriors were the top-ranked team all year and Brookhaven was an established No. 2 coming into the tournament.
But Ridgewater was intent on setting the tone for the match, Smith said.
"We set the tempo right from the start," Smith said. "Especially in the fourth (game), we started the tempo and it carried through."
The Warriors' approach never changed, even when the score tipped one way or the other in the fourth game. Ridgewater servers even netted serves after consecutive side outs.
"That's our game: complete aggressiveness," Sussenguth said. "This team has done that all year, and I know it can get frustrating for fans sometimes and they wonder why we have to serve so hard all the time. But they don't back off that aggressive style, and it stayed where it needed to be."
Hurrle, Smith, Wendlandt and Johnson now have twin titles in their playing resumes as they consider their futures. And Ridgewater will enter next year with a large group of experienced sophomores who have been through tournament rigors.
"Each one is unique," Sussenguth said of his Ridgewater championship teams from this year, 2010 and 2006. "The first one was the first for me as a head coach, and last year's team had the dramatic comeback in the final game. This year, it's back-to-back championships and a whole group of freshmen coming back who have had this experience."
Smith and Hurrle didn't need to spend much time comparing their two title teams.
"Last year, as freshmen, we came into practice with sophomores who lost in the (2009) semis and they were so determined to get back there," Smith said. "That was so exciting. This year, we knew we had a target on our backs and we knew we had to perform. But I can't say one is better than the other. They're both pretty amazing."
"It never gets old," Hurrle said.
NJCAA Division III National Championship
Ridgewater 3, Brookhaven 1
Brookhaven 29 25 27 22
Ridgewater 31 17 29 25
Serving: Taylor Elzenga 3-3-0, Emma Sharpe 12-12-0, Molly Hurrle 16-18-1, Kelci Viesselman 1-2-0, Aimee Johnson 15-19-1, Kelsey Stommes 11-13-0, Hannah Smith 17-21-1, Karli Wendlandt 10-12-0 ... Setting: Hurrle 70 assists, Johnson 1 ... Hitting: Elzenga 24-28-12, Sharpe 2-2-0, Hurrle 2-3-0, Viesselman 30-35-13, Stommes 37-39-16, Cassie Ziemer 10-12-6, Smith 46-52-25, Wendlandt 2-2-1 ... Blocking (aces): Elzenga 3, Stommes 1, Ziemer 1 ... Digs: Elzenga 6, Sharpe 8, Hurrle 5, Viesselman1, Johnson 24, Stommes 3, Smith 20, Wendlandt 8