The UW-Eau Claire volleyball team made a puzzle at the start of the season. Each piece represented a match on the schedule, all the way up to the national championship. After every game, Blugolds players would put a piece down.
On Saturday night, the puzzle was completed. For the first time in program history, UW-Eau Claire volleyball stands alone in the Division III ranks.
Arianna Barrett, the NCAA Tournament's most outstanding player, notched the final point on her 13th kill of the evening to help the Blugolds seal a stellar sweep of Calvin in the national championship match in St. Louis. Barrett hammered the ball toward a pair of Knights attempting to block her, and it deflected to a spot Calvin could not recover from. That spurred the Blugold players on the floor to fall to their knees and the bench to pile on those who secured history.
The countless hours of work for coach Kim Wudi, her staff and all the players paid off.
"Kim always says, 'Confidence comes with preparation,'" middle hitter Kendra Baierl said. "We've never been more prepared. It was just something special in the gym where I knew that this was going to happen. I knew that we weren't going to let each other not win a national championship. It just was meant to be."
The championship brought the fulfillment of revenge for the Blugolds, who fell to Calvin in the Final Four in 2018. Much of this year's roster was on that team, including those who returned for an NCAA-provided extra season after the coronavirus pandemic forced a shutdown last fall.
No one regrets the decision to come back now, nor the time put in while games were on hold.
"I think that adversity, it can take you down or you can choose to earn from it," Wudi said. "We often say, 'You either win or you learn.' We didn't have an opportunity to win last year, so we learned. We learned every day. We went through a lot, a lot of team adversity, a lot of conflict. I'm not going to deny that. We worked through a lot of stuff. When you have highly competitive people who aren't able to have that release of competing, there's tension and there's conflict. To work through that and to really be able to see everybody grow up, the maturity this team has is incredible."
Calvin pushed UW-Eau Claire in every set despite the sweep, as evident by the final scores of 25-22, 25-23, 25-21. Four runs in the first set, two for three points and two for four, helped UW-EC create some cushion. The Knights shrunk the deficit as small as two in the closing stages before the Blugolds got kills from Abby Volk and Barrett to finish the first battle.
Neither side led by more than a single point in the second set until UW-Eau Claire went up 15-13. A service error tied it at 21-21 before the Blugolds finished with a 4-2 burst to take a commanding lead. The run ended with the second of Barrett's three set-ending kills on the night.
"I think we were out-matched," Calvin coach Amber Warners said. "The physicality, the height, the strength."
Barrett’s final dagger in the third helped UW-Eau Claire complete a comeback effort. With its backs against the wall, Calvin rode a three-point run to a 19-15 advantage. The Blugolds swung back, but the Knights still held 20-18 and 21-20 leads. Their bid to extend the contest was spoiled with a closing five-point Blugold surge that sent confetti from the rafters. It marked the sixth straight national championship ended in three sets.
"I'm so proud to be a Blugold," Wudi said while holding back tears. "This is something we've been working for for a really long time. The 20 women in our program get a chance to experience this here but there's a whole lot of people that have come before that have wanted to end their career this way or end their season this way. This is for all of them. I'm just really, really proud."
In addition to earning most outstanding player honors, Barrett was named to the All-Tournament team alongside Baierl and Charlie Nelson. Barrett's 13 kills led the squad Saturday, while Baierl and Jordan Witzel each had 10. Makenzie Bachmann recorded a team-leading 17 digs.
"I do it for my teammates, I do it for this moment right here," Barrett said. "I'm very grateful to have these 20 beautiful, amazing women to play next to."
The Blugolds became the first WIAC school to win a national championship since UW-Whitewater in 2005. The Warhawks won the league's only other national crown in 2002.
UW-Eau Claire won its final 16 matches. Along the way the Blugolds secured a WIAC regular season and tournament title, a regional crown, and a spot in the history book. Their endurance was tested. UW-EC needed to win three matches in three days in St. Louis to finish on top. It started with a sweep of Tufts Thursday, then a five-set thriller against top-seeded Juniata on Friday. The final triumph helps the program finish the year at 35-4.
"I feel like I am just looking around just trying to take it all in, just remember this moment," Baierl said. "I wanted to play college volleyball to win a national championship, and it's happening. That is just unbelievable to me. It is so crazy."