Trojans cap magical season with NCCAA national title

Game Recap 12/4/2022 | written by Ethan Oskroba | photos by Flat Top Photos
NCCAA Volleyball Championships

POINT LOOKOUT, MO — To anyone fortunate enough to witness a clash at Van Dixhorn this year or watch a sliver of one of the 39 contests that comprised the Trojans’ 2022 odyssey knew that this team was special. The way everyone played their role to perfection without grumbling or complaining about a lack of opportunity. The way that true freshmen and fifth year vets blended together like they’d been playing alongside each other their whole lives. The way that every single player, up and down the roster, just seemed to genuinely enjoy every moment spent with their teammates, on and off the court. Well now, all that made this team so special has ensured that they will never be forgotten. After a riveting five-set victory over the Rams of Columbia International University on Saturday afternoon, the Trojans are NCCAA national champions!

The Trojans got right to work as the winner-take-all contest got underway, with Lana Vujosevic recording her team-leading 49th ace on the opening serve of the match as the Trojans surged ahead to an 8-2 advantage. The Trojans continued to maintain the edge throughout the middle portion of the frame before banishing all doubt behind a torrid stretch that saw the Trojans rattle off four straight scores to go up 18-9. Smelling blood in the water, the Trojans saw the set through, easily capturing the 25-14 victory to take a 1-0 lead in the match. The Trojans’ efficiency was through the roof throughout the set, as they hit .500 as a team, committing just two attacking errors. Trinity’s fifth-year standout and legend in the making Brianna Torres led the way by recording four kills, three blocks, and an assist during the set, while her potential successor to stardom, freshman Theresa Romero, chipped in with four kills and a staggering five blocks.

The second set was not as kind to the Trojans, as the Rams bounced back from the opening set drubbing to showcase the efficiency and ability that had propelled them to the finals. The Trojans refused to back down, however, never letting their inspired opponent garner more than a couple points worth of separation in a tightly contested affair. The heroics of Romero and fellow attacking dynamo Lana Vujosevic kept the Trojans within shouting distance as the pair racked up three kills each, but it ultimately wasn’t enough to top a Columbia team that was playing some of their sharpest ball of the season. While the Trojans closed the gap down the stretch, the Rams recorded the final three scores to salt away the set, 25-19, and continue the battle for the national crown.

The Trojans started out strong in the third set, getting kills from Torres and brilliant newcomer Halsie Keltner to claim a 2-1 lead, but Trinity was abruptly mandated to play catch up by a five-point Columbia run. The Trojans plodded onward, nearly getting back on level terms on the strength of a 5-1 run that was highlighted by Romero and Vujosevic each smacking down a pair of kills to reduce the deficit to one. Unfortunately, the Rams again kicked it into high gear, conceding consecutive scores to the Trojans just once while outscoring Trinity 16-7 the rest of the way to claim the set 25-15. The youth and experience of Torres and Romero (three kills apiece) again fused to spearhead the Trojan attack, but their continued contributions simply weren’t enough to prevent the Trojans from teetering on the edge of disaster, facing a must-win fourth set while trailing 2-1.

The Trojans had fought through adversity all season long, and they certainly weren’t ready to fold with all the chips pushed to the middle as the fourth set got underway. The Trojans’ resolve was never an issue, but the Rams’ tremendous efficiency still was as Columbia raced ahead to a 5-2 lead. The Trojans struck back to even the score, with Trinity’s dynamic setter Anna Skrzypchak setting up Vujosevic before turning to her deceptive, multi-level service package to record an ace to buoy a three-point streak that tied it at five. After conceding a pair, the Trojans rekindled their brilliance in earnest, with bruising attacker Nadia Wheeler exercising her tendency to bring her best on the grandest stage by recording two kills and a block to ignite a stretch of six straight Trinity tallies. The Trojans never looked back after the early onslaught, going blow-for-blow with the resilient Rams before finally breaking through at the end, with Torres adding three more kills to her remarkable game, season, and career totals, including the set-winner, as the Trojans rode a 6-1 run to a set triumph that set up a winner-take-all tiebreaker set to 15.

To the casual observer, it was just two volleyball teams squaring off on a Saturday afternoon. To the more astute viewer, it was a national championship match. But to the Trojans, it represented far more than that. Months of travelling, playing, practicing, coming together. Years of hard work and dedication. A lifetime worth of memories on and off the playing surface. There was no doubt that, regardless of the result, this team had already accomplished an unbelievable amount and had much to be proud of. But tantalizingly close, just fifteen points away on that very court in the middle of Missouri, stood the chance of a lifetime. The Trojans weren’t about to let that chance slip away.

Trinity got off to a blazing start in the tiebreaker period, roaring ahead 3-0 on kills by Torres and Vujosevic. The Rams refused to let the Trojans waltz to glory however, as Columbia claimed the point on seven of the next nine sequences while holding the Trojans without a kill as they turned the tables and constructed a 7-5 edge. Trojan head coach Luke Ward signaled for a timeout, which proved to be just what the Trojans needed, as the reinvigorated squad scored the next five points out of the break, with Torres conjuring up a kill and an ace to even the score before Vujosevic unleashed a timely barrage on the Columbia defense, hammering down kills on the next three plays to push Trinity ahead, 10-7. The Trojan lead had dwindled to just 11-10 before Vujosevic struck again, taking a feed from freshman Isabella Acosta to open up a sliver of breathing room. With Trinity’s lead again threatened as the Trojans led by a 13-12 margin, Torres and Madison Williams teamed up for a clutch block in a colossal moment to give the Trojans championship point. Just one play later, the Trojans filed an irrefutable claim to national fame and everlasting glory in the most fitting way possible. On a sequence set in motion by Trinity’s all-world libero Jaylyn Freeman, Skrzypchak lofted one more beautiful lob to Brianna Torres, who clobbered it over the net to close out the Trojans 15-12 tiebreaker triumph and bring home the national title.

The victory was a storybook ending to a remarkable season for the Trojans, who will hoist their first ever NCCAA national championship banner back home at Van Dixhorn Arena. In addition to the ultimate prize, the Trojans’ historic run brought individual accolades to several of the Trinity stars. Brianna Torres was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after tallying 67 kills in the tournament, including 17 in the decisive match. She was joined on the all-tournament team by Vujosevic, who recorded a game-high 19 kills in the finals, and Jaylyn Freeman, who added to her extensive highlight reel with numerous eye-popping digs, including a game-high 25 in the final. As the cherry on top, head coach Luke Ward was named NCCAA Coach of the Year. Other Trojan standouts included Romero (10 kills, six blocks in the finals) and Skrzypchak (49 assists).

The Trojans’ (30-9) stellar campaign has come to a close, and it won’t soon be forgotten in Bannockburn. While some of the 23 rostered Trojans will walk off into the sunset as others prepare for 2023, one thing is for certain—every player, coach, and manager associated with the team contributed in some way, on or off the court, and in most cases, both. And when those cogs assembled and the stars aligned, they created such a perfect unit that no one could stop it. The 2022 Trojans are your NCCAA Division I National Champions.