Game Recap By Mason Nesbitt, TMU Sports Information Director
FULLERTON — Before Saturday night’s GSAC title game, the PA announcer indulged himself in a bit of low-hanging humor. In introducing The Master’s University to a decidedly pro-TMU crowd, he tabbed the team’s middle blocker, “Jane .. hail … Cisar.”
Cisar shook her head, wry smile on her face. She wanted to know who’d put the man up to it. “Who did that?” she mouthed toward the bleachers in Darling Pavilion.
Mustang fans found themselves asking the same question in a wild, back-and-forth final, fitting of teams that had split the regular-season series.
Who was it who pushed Master’s over the top in a 3-1 win over defending-champion Westmont College, earning TMU an automatic berth in the NAIA national tournament later this month?
Was it Regan Tate’s 16 kills and no-fear resolve? Was it McKenna Hafner’s match-high 33 digs? Kayla Sims’ all-around play? Or Madi Fay’s?
Really, it was the poise of a club that’s seen a few things during one of the most impressive turnarounds in school history. The Mustangs (29-5), ranked 13th in the country, have experienced euphoric highs — a road win over then-No. 14 Columbia College, a sweep of Westmont — and lows — a head-scratching, 3-0 loss to Menlo comes to mind.
So, when Master’s failed to close out a second set in which it held set point Saturday (on the verge of a 2-0 match lead), there was no reason to panic.
Even when No. 15 Westmont twice cut TMU’s lead to two late in the third set, the Mustangs rallied to pull away. With set four tied at 18-all, Tate pounded a ball to the floor and the Mustangs pressed on for a 26-24 win that spilled players and coaches onto the floor in celebration, head coach Allan Vince’s 6-foot-7 frame towering over the GSAC champs.
Mustang players relished beating Westmont in the final, a team perennially atop the conference and one that swept TMU on Oct. 12.
“It was poetic,” said Hafner, who would know. She’s an English major. “I know what that means.”
Hafner also defined the meaning of leaving it all on the court. She lunged to the floor on multiple occasions, keeping Westmont attacks off the hardwood.
At one point, Vince asked TMU’s front line why it hadn’t attempted to stop a Westmont attack.
“I said, ‘Guys, we need to block, get that ball,'” Vince later recalled. “And McKenna said, ‘Coach, I told them to leave it open so I could dig her. I want it.'”
What Hafner was to the defense, Tate was to the attack. The junior outside hitter challenged her career high for kills (18 against William Jessup last season), but these were more meaningful. Late in set two, she jumped and sent the ball off a Westmont blocker. The ball hovered on TMU’s side of the net. Tate jumped and swung again for a kill.
The Mustangs showed similar resilience, doubling down on winning their first-ever GSAC regular season title last week. Master’s will find out Monday at 8 a.m. PST where it fits into the NAIA bracket. The tournament’s top 19 seeds (and the host team) advance directly to the final site in Sioux City, Iowa. The remaining 24 teams play opening round matches on campuses across the country.
Had Hafner been told six months ago that the Mustangs — who won 11 matches in 2017 — would win 29-and-counting during her junior year, how would she have reacted?
“I probably would have laughed a little bit,” Hafner said. “I don’t know, though, I think I would have believed it. We had the talent last year. Nothing is really different. We’ve just played with more heart and more maturity.”
Fay’s maturation from a raw, powerful freshman to a swing-or-tip nightmare for defenses has been key. She tallied 10 kills with just two errors Saturday. She also provided timely digs.
Sims racked up 11 kills, 16 assists and 10 digs. Sarah Park matched a season-high with 25 assists for a TMU team that will participate in the national tournament for the first time since 2013.
Chloe Emory chipped in nine kills. Autumn Stevens had six total blocks. Cisar had six kills, the most crucial coming at the end of set three when she sent the ball on an irreversible nosedive.
Earlier in the day, Cisar said she hoped to play Westmont in the final. Vince agreed.
“As much as you don’t want to play a team as talented as Westmont, you have to,” Vince said. “You want to play the best so that you know how to play against the best when you get to nationals.”