Courtesy of Megan Lobdell, Big Sky Conference
The 2001 volleyball season was a special one for Eastern Washington.
Wade Benson was in his second season as head coach for the Eagles, and he led them to a victory in the NCAA Tournament. The accomplishment ranks ninth on the Big Sky Conference's list of "25 Greatest Women's Moments."
Eastern Washington finished the regular-season third in the league with a 9-5 record as it headed to Sacramento for the Big Sky Championship. Just to make the NCAA Tournament was going to be a daunting task.
"That team was a really hard-working team," said Benson, who returned as EWU's head coach in 2013 after leaving following the 2006 season to become as an assistant coach at Auburn. "That team had all the scenarios to compete in the conference but also outside of the conference. Plus they got along really well and were very determined."
The Eagles would have to play three matches in three days to get the automatic bid to the NCAA. EWU had not secured the Big Sky's automatic bid since 1989.
"Not many teams have done that," said Eastern Washington head coach Wade Benson about winning three matches in three days. "Obviously, it took a special group."
Eastern Washington played No. 6 seed Idaho State in the first round. The Eagles won 3-1, and then beat No. 2 seed Northern Arizona 3-2.
"The big match was the semifinal match,'' Benson said. "NAU was a good team, and we were able to come through in five. Then our focus was on Sacramento State. We didn't even need to talk about it. It was, 'we're here, we're ready, let's go.'"
The tournament host and No. 1 seed Sacramento State stood in the Eagles' way of advancing to the NCAA Tournament. During the regular-season, Sacramento State swept the Eagles in both regular-season matches.
The Hornets came out and were able to win the first set 30-28.
"We were up and in control and we lost it," said Benson. "Which means you would lose a lot of confidence coming out of that. They didn't lose any. They were so focused. It was like let's go, and we are going to keep going, and we are going to go really hard and see what happens."
The Eagles came back to win the final three sets.
"It was a fabulous match by both teams," added Benson. "Certainly it wasn't handed to us in any form. It was a battle across the board. It just so happened to be a battle we won that night."
After the win, the Eagles had three players named to the All-Tournament team in Lindsay Crandell, Robyn Felder and Janelle Ruen. Ruen was named tournament Most Valuable Player.
Eastern Washington had to wait for the NCAA selections to see where they would play, and who they would play. The Eagles were making their fourth tournament appearance, and second via an automatic berth.
The first tournament appearance for EWU came in 1989 where the Eagles lost to Hawaii. In 1998 and 1999, Eastern Washington earned at-large bids. EWU lost to Notre Dame in 1998 and UCLA in 1999.
In 2001, a short trip to Pullman, Wash., to face Oregon State of the Pac-10 was Eastern Washington's fate. This was a matchup few thought EWU could win. Since joining the Big Sky in 1987, EWU had only faced Oregon State once, and were swept by the Beavers in 1994.
"It wasn't anything special so to speak," said Benson about traveling to Pullman. "But we ended up getting a draw that people didn't think we could win. But we knew we could."
"We match up really well with Oregon State," added Benson. "We were equal to them. No question. It was two good teams going at it. It ended up going five. We just made more plays then they did at the end. That team was very tough."
The Eagles and the Beavers went back and forth in sets. EWU won the first set and the third set, while Oregon State won the second and the fourth. That would make the fifth and final set an interesting one. The Eagles fought their way through it to get the win, 15-10.
The victory for EWU was its first in NCAA Division I Tournament play, and just the fifth overall win by a Big Sky team.
Against the Beavers, Eastern Washington recorded a team and league season-high of 109 digs, as well as 14 team blocks. The Eagles also tallied six serving aces in the match, while hitting a .171, which marked their third-lowest hitting percentage of the season.
Oregon State had 81 kills in the five-set match, hit a .210 overall, had 115 digs and 10 blocks, but could not defend the Eagles offensive triple-threat of Robyn Felder, Janelle Ruen and Lindsay Page.
Felder led EWU with 23 kills and just two errors for a match-high .404 average, and added nine blocks.
"Robyn is only six feet," said Benson. "She isn't super big, but she is strong and tough and she moves the ball around really well. She was fierce and so I would say the ball handling, the setting, plus Robyn's ability to find holes was the difference. It took pressure off of our pin (outside) players. Oregon State was a very good defensive team. They handled the pins really well but the middle attack they struggled."
Ruen scored a double-double for the match with 14 kills and 20 digs, and Page had 13 kills, 20 digs and seven block assists.
"You are going five and it is never going to be one player," said Benson about Felder, Ruen and Page leading the team. "The recipe to winning is having three players play really well, and having your role players be OK. Those were three of our bigger players that needed to play big and they did."
The Eagles advanced to play No. 9 Hawai'i, and fell 3-1 in the second round. Felder led the team that match with 12 kills, while Ruen posted a match-high 21 digs.
Currently, Felder is the head coach at Dixie State in St. George, Utah, and Ruen is an assistant coach at Eastern Washington for Benson.