Augustana’s season came to a close with their first Division II loss of the season when Northeastern State defeated the Vikings 5-3 in the NCAA Central Region 2 Championship. Setting a new record for wins in a season, Augustana finished the season 25-2 while the RiverHawks keep their season alive with a 23-5 record.
The Vikings won their fifth straight regular Northen Sun Intercollegiate Conference Championship and captured their fourth consecutive NSIC Tournament title to earn the No. 2 seed and right to host the NCAA Central Region 2 tournament, but Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletic Association regular season champion and region No. 3 Northeastern State will represent the Central Region in the NCAA round of 16 with their win on Sunday afternoon.
With NSU’s strong singles players in the waiting, Augustana looked to counter with a head start in doubles competition, but slow starts hindered the Vikings’ chances. The No. 2 and 3 RiverHawk doubles pairings earned early breaks and jumped out to big leads, but Augustana’s pairings didn't go quietly.
Jenna Helleberg and Meredith Lawrence entered the region championship on a 16-match winning streak, cruising through the conference tournament and the regional semifinal against Emporia State, but Northeastern State ended Augustana’s No. 3 pairing’s run. Helleberg and Lawrence fought back to be down just one break, but Houda Bellamine and Lucia Cerchlanova held serve one final time for an 8-5 win.
Faced with a daunting task of the No. 10-ranked doubles tandem in the Central Region and a duo that rolled to an 8-0 win their semifinal against Nebraska-Kearney, Christine Olivo and Heather Sullivan battled in the No. 2 doubles contest but came up just short. A nervous start for the Vikings led to a 7-2 lead for Northeastern State’s Barbora Jirickova and Kristina Savchenkov, but the Vikings didn’t roll over. Winning the next four games, Olivo and Sullivan were one break away from getting the match back on serve, but Jirickova held one final time to earn an 8-6 win and give NSU a 2-0 lead in the team score.
The No. 1 doubles contest pitted two pairings ranked in the top seven of the region, including three individuals ranking in the top 20 as singles players. Augustana’s Katie Jesperson and Jessa Richards held the No. 2 billing entering the match and caused havoc for the Northeastern State pairing, but Martina Bruzikova and Valeriia Efimenko were equally disruptive early in the match. No player was able to hold their first service game and the match was deadlocked at 2-2 in the early stages of a thrilling contest.
The pairings continued to trade blows as one break was answered after another, but Jesperson and Richards eventually showed why they were undefeated on the season. The Vikings earned a late break of Bruzikova’s serve and Richards closed the door with a strong service game and several clutch volleys for an 8-6 win, pulling Augustana within one point, down 2-1 entering singles competition.
Early scores showed why the two teams were seeded second and third in the region with none of the teams’ players budging, It was Augustana’s Lawrence who drew first blood as the Prior Lake, Minn. freshman stymied her opponent’s size advantage with a wide array of shots and recorded her 17th straight win to close the season with a 6-2, 6-1 victory.
With the team score tied at 2-2, the Vikings could see a path to victory forming and Richards would push the Vikings closer with yet another dominating win. The sophomore who was recently lifted to the no. 13 ranking in the region executed her game plan to near perfection, toppling 19th-ranked Bellamine in straight sets, 6-2, 6-1. Richards' win gave the Vikings a 3-2 lead, but for only a brief moment.
Northeastern State’s singles depth shined through with strong performances from their fourth- and fifth-flight singles players. Olivo scored an early break, but Efimenko overpowered the Augustana freshman in the No. 4 singles match on the way to 6-1, 6-3 win which evened the team score. A few minutes later, the RiverHawks drew within one point of sealing their region championship when Augustana’s Helleberg was upended by Jirickova in straight sets, 6-2, 6-0.
With their back against the wall, Augustana’s fate was left in the hands of a freshman who joined the team at semester. Francesca Beg’s strong ground strokes forced NSU’s Bruzikova from sideline to sideline, but it was the RiverHawks’s No. 3 singles player’s ability to keep points alive that secured the match-clinching win. Beg wasn’t able to put enough balls past Bruzikova's wide range and Northeastern State won the match with a 6-4, 6-1 win at No. 3 singles.
To the ire of the fans, the No. 1 singles contest went unfinished as the RiverHawks secured the team victory with their fifth team point, but there was plenty of drama in the top singles match that featured players ranked in the top three of the Central Region.
Jesperson faced the 17th-ranked player in Division II who also boasted the top slot in the region singles poll, but the Augustana senior displayed what earned her the No. 3 ranking. After trading breaks early in the match, NSU’s Savchenkov took over the first set with her powerful strokes, winning 6-2.
Eager to earn the second trip to the NCAA Championships in her four-year career, Jesperson fought back in the second set, breaking Savchenkov’s serve twice in succession to race out to a 5-2 lead. The Northeastern State sophomore then called for an injury timeout which halted Jesperson’s momentum. As the players returned to the court, Savchenkov quickly reeled off four straight games, forcing Jesperson to hold serve which she did and forced a tiebreak at 6-6 in the second set. The match official overturned a line call that gave Savchenkov a 3-0 lead in the 12-point tiebreak, but the No. 3 singles contest fell in favor of the RiverHawks which gave NSU the team victory and halted the finish of the No. 1 singles match.
The Vikings closed the season with a 25-2 record, falling one win shy of returning to the NCAA Championships. Included in Augustana’s 22-1 record against Division II competition was an 11-0 record in the NSIC regular season which pushed their consecutive match winning streak to 54 straight victories that has led to a string of five NSIC championships.
Augustana’s Jesperson, Richards, and Lawrence each finished the 2014 campaign with just one loss that came at the hands of Division I St. Joseph’s during their spring trip to Puerto Rico. Against Division II opponents, this Viking trio posted a combined 54-0 record.
Jesperson and Richards put together a stellar season as the top doubles pairing for the Vikings, winning all 25 matches they played including wins over Division I teams Providence and Valparaiso.
Courtesy: Eric Zahn, Assistant Sports Information Director, Augustana College