Nov. 20, 2005
With a flair for the dramatic for the third consecutive day, the Thundering Herd volleyball team won a five-game thriller over No. 2 seed Houston to claim the Conference USA Tournament Championship, 3-2 (30-26, 25-30, 30-28, 28-30, 15-8), in its inaugural season in the league.
"I'm so proud of these girl," Marshall head coach Mitch Jacobs said. "I think I've aged 10 years this weekend, but to see these girls win it is awesome. They are champions because they play with the heart of champions."
In front of a nationally televised audience on CSTV, the Thundering Herd and Cougars faced off in a classic battle of No. 1 versus No. 2 at Autry Court on the campus of Rice University.
Unlike in the previous two days of the tournament, Marshall jumped out and looked impressive in game one to take the early advantage. Houston would fight back and claim game two and it looked like the two squads were headed for a classic battle to decide who would be the champions and grab the NCAA automatic bid.
In games three and four, neither team back downed as Marshall was able to claim the third stanza 30-28. Houston would counterpunch and take the fourth by the same score to force the thrilling game five finish in which the Herd would come out on top.
The Cougars laid claim to an early 3-0 lead in the final game, but Marshall wasn't about to quit. The Herd would get on the board with a kill by senior Amber Sims, then after a pair of Houston errors and kills by Nickie Sanlin and Stephanie Cahill, the Herd found itself on top 5-3. From that point, Marshall would go on a 10-5 run thanks to three kills by Kelly-Anne Billingy and four more by Sims.
"After we got down in game five, something happened and all of a sudden we were just clicking," Jacobs said. "It was pure hustle and playing cohesive and believing we could get it done was what got us the win in game five. Everyone saw a great match tonight because the momentum was constantly shifting."
Billingy led all players with 28 kills and was named the tournament MVP after posting 79 kills on the weekend.
"After last season, we said we were going to win a championship and go to the NCAA," Billingy said. "So all season long it was a complete team effort to reach that goal. Everyone goes out and gives 110 percent all the time and it paid off today and we reached our goal."
Billingy and teammate Nickie Sanlin made the all-tournament team for the Herd and for the fifth-year senior, getting to the championship was a long-time coming.
"Three years of playing in a championship game finally paid off," Sanlin said of the Herd's third straight tournament final after falling in the finals of the Mid-American Conference for two years in a row. "It feels so good to finally win a championship and not be on the other side."
Senior counterparts Katie Stein and Sims also had impressive tournaments to guide the Herd to the title.
"This is a dream come true," said Stein, who finished with 75 assists. "It's been a long-time coming. I didn't think we'd ever make it to this. To win the regular season, the tournament and get a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament is the perfect ending and nobody deserves it more than this team."
The senior class led the Herd to four-straight 20-win seasons for the first-time in modern volleyball history at Marshall and for Sims to finish with such a dominating performance is icing on the cake.
"It's everything I ever wanted and hoped it would be," said the senior who finished the match with 19 kills, a .615 hitting percentage and eight block assists. "After being in this position and for three years and finally pulling it off in an exciting match is amazing. It was really nice to have one of my best games ever tonight. It's like icing on the cake."
"Amber Sims was the best player out there today. She's the reason we're sitting here right now as champions."
It was not only the seniors that stepped up big on the night, Billingy poured in 28 kills with 19 digs, Cahill came on strong late to finish with 12 kills and 14 digs and Maggie Arias had 20 digs on the night.
As a team, the Herd also finished with 13.5 blocks and 83 total digs to hold Houston to a .211 hitting percentage. Marshall hit .290 as a team, including a .400 clip in game five while shutting down Houston a negative .043 in the final game.
With the win on top of claiming the Conference USA title and NCAA bid, the Herd now has its most wins since 1995 at 26-5. Marshall is also on a 12-match winning streak, its longest in history. The win also marked the first-time Marshall has won three-straight five game matches in the history of the program. It will be Marshall's second NCAA appearance of all-time. The first was in 1995 when it won the Southern Conference title.
The Thundering Herd will now wait for the NCAA selections next weekend to find out where it is seeded and where it will play. Herdzone.com will have updates as they become available.